Striking without warning, earthquakes often are among the most devastating natural disasters. In the first decade of the 21st century alone—2000-2010—earthquakes accounted for 60 percent of deaths from natural disasters, according to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). In 2010, more than 225,000 people were killed as the result of a particularly harrowing quake in Haiti.

Caused by the movement of plates along fault lines on the earth’s surface, earthquakes often leave a great path of instant death and destruction. In some cases, however, the quake is only the beginning of the trouble, such as the tsunami and nuclear meltdown that followed the massive 2011 earthquake in Japan. More recently, a series of earthquakes struck northwest Iran in mid-August 2012, killing 306 people—mostly women and children—and injuring more than 3,000.  But in the aftermath, large numbers of animal corpses have remained in water sources, polluting them as they decay. Homeless survivors live in unsanitary conditions without water. And at first, the nation rebuffed foreign aid. (The U.S. government offered to expedite applications for charitable assistance, despite sanctions.)    

Iran sits along several natural fault lines, and devastating earthquakes are common; in 2003, an area quake killed 31,000 people. But Iran is not the only country at risk. Some of the world’s most populous cities—Tokyo, Mexico City, New York, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Kolkata and Jakarta—lie on fault lines.

Port-au-Prince was among he heavily damaged areas in Haiti.

Quakes are measured on a Richter scale of 1.0 to 10.0, gauging the intensity of shocks. Each year, some 900,000 quakes with a 2.0 or smaller affect the world; while those are large enough to be measured by seismographs, they aren’t felt by most. Earthquakes of 7.0 or higher, which cause serious damage, occur at a rate of about 100 per year. Those higher than 8.0 on the Richter scale, able to completely destroy a city, occur roughly every five or 10 years.

In the United States, three significant fault lines offer potential for tremendous damage. The San Andreas Fault, for one, runs the length of California. While the last mega-quake was in 1906, the state has been beset by large earthquakes on a frequent basis. Consequently, the state has somewhat stringent building codes to withstand the shaking.

Two other areas of the country are not quite as prepared. The Cascadia zone in the Pacific Northwest stretches from Seattle to Northern California, and experiences a giant quake every 300-600 years; the last was in 1700 according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The New Madrid Seismic Zone links Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi. Three earthquakes in excess of 8.0 occurred there in 1811 and 1812; scientists say those quakes likely were larger than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, though modern measurements didn’t exist then. Both faults have a significant likelihood of triggering a major earthquake in the next half century.

Key Facts

  • In the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, providing relief is difficult—if not impossible. Roads, bridges, and airports are disabled. Communications systems are challenged. Emergency aid that can arrive often is focused on search-and-rescue operations. Consequently, many affected find they must provide for their basic needs for the first few days.
  • The aftermath of an earthquake may bring disease, especially in resource-poor countries. In Haiti, a post-earthquake outbreak of cholera killed more than 7,000. The number is small compared to the loss of life from the earthquake itself, but the cholera outbreak stretched for more than a year and sickened more than 520,000. Haiti’s poor water system was partially blamed for the spread of disease.
  • Countries that strengthen building codes often reduce death and destruction. According to one study, the damage in Haiti was twice that of other 7.0 earthquakes. Poor-quality concrete, a building staple, was blamed for many building failures. A 2008 earthquake in China brought investigations into shoddy material used in school buildings after 90,000 died. On the other end of the spectrum is Chile, which has used concrete walls as a brace for its buildings due to the frequency of quakes there. When an 8.8 magnitude quake struck in 2010, fewer than 1,000 people died.
  • In the United States, earthquakes are not isolated to one region of the country. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 45 states and territories are at moderate to high risk of earthquakes. Twenty-six urban centers also at risk. In 2011, an earthquake centered in Virginia was felt from North Carolina to New York and caused damage to federal monuments in Washington, D.C.
  • Earthquake recovery takes years, though interest wanes. In 2012, the United Nations sought $230 million to continue aiding Haitians. Though 500,000 Haitians lived in tents two years after the quake, only 19 percent of the aid sought by the U.N. had been received.

How To Help

  • Fund innovative building programs and education, particularly in resource-poor countries. Poorly constructed buildings collapse in earthquakes; falling debris is the greatest cause of death. Some experiments with straw houses and bamboo are underway. But overcoming local superstitions about alternative building materials is necessary.
  • Transfer knowledge from prepared communities to those at risk. Cities and countries that experience the most frequent smaller earthquakes often are extremely well-prepared while others that are due for a major earthquake may not be.
  • Continue to support efforts in Japan and Haiti. Both countries continue to have tremendous needs for mental health services, programs for the disabled, and general rebuilding efforts.
  • Invest in water system initiatives. Vital services are important to stop the spread of disease. Yet in an earthquake, infrastructure often is damaged. Alternative water supplies can be vital to stopping disease. Both small-scale water supplies—for rural areas—and large systems for urban centers are needed.

What Donors Are Doing

  • The Tides Fund devoted $1.4 million in grants to organizations working in Haiti. While more than $1 million was devoted to immediate needs, the remainder was aimed at helping the country rebuild and restore.
  • The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded a grant of more than $750,000 to study the fault that caused the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. The foundation also awarded a total of $6 million to three West Coast universities to develop an early warning system for the Pacific Coast of the United States.
  • The Clinton Foundation Haiti Fund has awarded more than $4.75 million in grants, including $1.5 million to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. Other grants have been provided to organizations like Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, Save the Children, and CARE.
  • The W.M. Keck Foundation provided a $1 million grant to scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to build and install an observatory at the expected rupture zone of the Cascadia fault.
  • The Japan Society Inc. awarded $1.6 million in grants to provide health care for people in temporary housing, conduct summer camps for children in Fukushima Prefecture and educational workshops throughout the region, and promote creative arts in the region.

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