10 Deadliest Quakes in U.S. History

Great 1906 San Francisco Quake

Photograph by Arnold Genthe looking toward the fire on Sacramento Street after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

For people living in earthquake zones, the possibility of large quakes happening is very real.  However, sometimes it is easy to forget just how bad they can be and, consequently, we fail to prepare.   There are many things you can do to prepare for a quake (see our Earthquake Preparedness Lists to learn how.)

Here’s a list of the 10 deadliest quakes in U.S. history.

1. The Great 1906 San Francisco Quake - April 18, 1906

Between 700 and  2800 people died in what is known as the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  The quake caused a fire in San Francisco that was responsible for many of the deaths.

At 5:12 a.m. a large foreshock shook the city and the main 7.9 magnitude quake happened a few seconds later and lasted between 45 and 60 seconds.  It ruptured the San Andreas fault from San Juan Bautista to Cape Mendocino, a total of 296 miles.  People felt the quake as far away Nevada, Oregon, and Los Angeles.  While most of the deaths occurred in San Francisco, there were also deaths up and down the length of the ruptured faultline.

2. Aleutian Islands, Alaska - April 1, 1946

In 1946 the Aleutian Islands in Alaska was rocked with an 8.6 magnitude quake (it was originally listed as a 7.8 but the number was later revised.)  The quake caused a terrible tsunami in the Pacific Ocean that impacted Hawaii and the Pacific Coast of the United States.  165 people died in the tsunami.

The Seismic Sea Wave Warning System, later named the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, was created because of this tsunami.

3. Great Alaskan Earthquake, Prince William Sound, Alaska - March 27, 1964

The 9.2 magnitude Great Alaskan Earthquake happened at 5:36 p.m. and lasted for almost four minutes.  The quake and resulting tsunami caused approximately 143 deaths.  It was the strongest U.S. earthquake in recorded history and the second strongest global quake in recorded history.

4. Long Beach Earthquake - March 11, 1933 

The 6.4 magnitude Long Beach, California earthquake happened at 5:55 pm and caused 120 deaths.  The earthquake damaged school buildings across the region so badly that the California State Legislature enacted the Field Act, which required school buildings to be earthquake resistant, because the death toll would’ve been much higher if school had been in session.

5. Hawaii Island – April 03, 1868

The 1868 Hawaii quake is the largest in Hawaii’s recorded history and is still causing aftershocks today.  The subsequent tsnumani and landslide resulted in 77 deaths.

6. The San Fernando Earthquake  - February 9, 1971

The 6.6 magnitude San Fernando Earthquake, also known as the Sylmar Earthquake, rocked San Fernando Valley near the town of Sylmar, California at 6:00 am and killed 65 people.  There was much destruction from this quake totalling over 500 million in damages.

7. The Loma Prieta Earthquake, Santa Cruz County, CA - October 18, 1989

The 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake, or World Series Earthquake, about 9 miles northeast of Santa Cruz, California, resulted in 63 deaths and 3,757 injuries.  It occurred during the warm up practice of the 1989 World Series at Candlestick Park between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.

8. The Charleston Earthquake, South Carolina – August 31, 1886

The Charleston Earthquake in Charleston, South Carolina killed between 60 and 110 people and caused millions of dollars in damages. It is the worst earthquake in terms of damage to ever occur in the Southeast U.S.

9. Northridge Quake – January 17, 1994

The 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake measured resulted in 57 deaths and 8,700 injuries.  It had the highest ever recorded ground acceleration of any quake in urban North America, which is why it was felt as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada.  The quake caused damages costing approximately $20 billion.

10. The Wrightwood Earthquake, San Juan Capistrano, CA - December 08, 1812

The 6.9 magnitude Wrightwood earthquake, or San Juan Capistrano earthquake, is believed to have been caused by a 110 mile rupture of the southern part of the San Andreas fault near Wrightwood, California. It resulted in 40 deaths – all of them Native Americans attending service at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

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