The deadliest earthquakes in history ranked

Turkey: Şanlıurfa building collapses hours after earthquake

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An immense rescue operation is underway in Turkey and Syria after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck in the early hours of Monday morning. More than 1,000 people have been confirmed dead and thousands more injured in what has been described as Turkey’s biggest-ever earthquake, which struck near the city of Gaziantep and was followed by a number of strong aftershocks, felt across the region and into Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel.

Here, examines some of the biggest natural disasters of this sort the world has ever seen.

Haiyuan county, China, 1920

Throughout history, China has been notorious as a hotspot for earthquakes, caught between the Indian and Pacific plates with the first seismometer being developed there. Back in 1556, the province of Shaanxi was rocked by an earthquake, said to have robbed some 800,000 lives, however, the accuracy of casualty counting before the 20th Century has been brought into question.

In the early 20th Century, China was struck twice in quick succession. In December 1920, Haiyuan county in Ningxia Province was hit by an earthquake of 8.5 magnitudes with there being some estimations that 273,000 people died. A total of 675 landslides took place with one destroying the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County.

Then, just seven years later, in Gulang county, the Gansu earthquake struck. Tremors were felt measuring 7.6 magnitudes with the aftershock continuing for three weeks. Thousands died and the earthquake felt more than 400 miles away.

The earthquake, which hit Gulang or the centre of Wuwei city today, had devastating effects on the economy, society, and environment, snatching more than 40,000 lives with it being known by the local community as the time “when the mountains walked”.

Indian Ocean, 2004 

On Boxing Day 2004, an undersea earthquake, measuring 9.1, struck near the island of Sumatra. In the hours that followed, a tsunami, measuring some 30ft tall, caused death and destruction to the coastal areas, affecting those in the likes of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, and Thailand.

It is estimated that more than 200,000 died. On the island of Sumatra alone, 160,000 people were wiped out, approximately five percent of the population.

On the tenth anniversary of the disaster a man named only as Mahyuddin, then in his late 30s, told the Guardian he helped with the rescue effort, but upon returning home, he discovered that his wife and son were gone.

He said: “On the way back we saw bodies floating in the water. It was unbelievable. We picked up many survivors… I returned to my home in Kampoeng Jawa village. Sadly, my house had been swept away. I had lost my wife and my son and I didn’t know what to do. I went to the great mosque and slept there on the terrace and the tremors continued into the night.”

It took five years to recover from the disaster and millions benefited from the aid sent by the international community.

Haiti, 2010

More than a decade ago, on January 12, the Dominican Republic and, predominantly, Haiti were hit with an earthquake that measured 7.0-magnitude with two aftershocks of around 5.5.

Although the initial earthquake lasted just 35 seconds, it did serious damage. The Haitian government officially counted more than 300,000 dead, making it one of the worst natural disasters on record. But other estimates were much smaller, ranging from 100,000 to 160,000.

Oranel Mettelus was one of the 1.5 million Haitians displaced after the disaster. He told WE in 2020 that he still thinks of his parents who were lost in the disaster. He said: “There was nothing left. We had to move through…

“Sometimes I lay at night and can’t sleep at all. I can’t stop thinking about it. If my [Mum] and Dad were still here, I wouldn’t have to figure it out on my own.”

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Tangshan city, China, 1976

The earthquake of July 28, 1976, is thought to be one of the worst of all time. Officially, it took the lives of 242,000 people in the city that is now home to 2 million. However, it is thought this figure could be as high as 655,000 with some 700,000 injured.

Strange happenings took place in the days leading up to the disaster. Water levels in wells rose and sank, rats were seen running around in packs during the daytime, chickens refused to eat and flashes of coloured light were seen in the sky in the hours before the earthquake hit at 3.42am.

When it finally did hit, in just 23 seconds, 90 percent of Tangshan City’s buildings were brought down and some residents were thrown six feet in the air. More than 4,000 children were orphaned and more than 160,000 families were homeless.

A year later, the Chinese authorities described it as the most deadly earthquake in China in more than four centuries.

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