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5 Deadliest Natural Disasters Since the 20th Century

Updated: Jun 26, 2018



Natural disasters serve as an unfortunate reminder of Earth’s volatility. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods are just a few examples of these catastrophic forces of nature.


There is certainly a geographical component to the frequency and severity of a force majeure. Countries in the Far East are by far the most susceptible to flooding and tsunamis. Indonesia, China, and India are the most common examples of these natural disasters, as you’ll discover throughout this list.


Let’s take a look at the 5 deadliest natural disasters since the 20th century began.


5. TANGSHAN EARTHQUAKE (EST. 242,000-779,000 DEATHS)

Where: Tangshan, Hibei, China

When: July 28, 1976

Type of Natural Disasters: Earthquake (7.8 on the Richter Scale; 7.1 aftershock)

Summary: This early-morning earthquake struck when most citizens were asleep, and were therefore unable to react in time. Likewise, the severe aftershock contributed to thousands more casualties. The Chinese government poorly calculated the exact number of casualties, or ignored casualties in the surrounding areas.

How Could the Risk Exposure Have Been Mitigated? The location of the city itself really couldn’t have been worse.  It resides almost in the dead-center of an area with multiple faults. The buildings themselves were also poorly constructed, as they were built on unstable soil. This enabled them to fall more quickly and easily, contributing to even more casualties. Even with the poor city location, using sounder land to build probably would’ve saved tens of thousands of lives (at least).

Cost to Restitute Damages: Unknown. The Chinese government refused to accept aid from the United Nations in the wake of the earthquake, choosing to rebuild within the country. However, the city rebounded remarkably well. The city was almost entirely rebuilt by 1986, and by 1996, it was considered one of China’s 50 best cities (a much more impressive feat than it may sound).


4. BHOLA CYCLONE (EST. 300,000 DEATHS)

Where: West Bengal, India; East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)

When: November 3-13, 1970

Type of Natural Disasters: Tropical Cyclone

Summary: The cyclone started as the remaining piece of Tropical Storm Nora, which hit the South China Sea on November 3rd. A week later, the cyclone was at full size and speed, at over 100 mph. It struck the coast of East Pakistan on the 12th, and dissipated from there.

How Could the Risk Exposure Have Been Mitigated? Politics played a central role with the increase of death from the cyclone. India had knowledge of the cyclone and its impact well before Pakistan did. However, as both countries despised each other, the Indian government did not alert the Pakistani government.

Even so, East Pakistan still had a storm warning system. However, its careless misuse (believed to be a simple inability to use it by its operators) cost tens of thousands of lives alone.

Cost to Restitute Damages: $86.4 million (ab. $550 million today, with inflation). In a textbook display of how disaster can bring out the best in people and governments alike, citizens and world powers from all over rallied to raise aid for the affected citizens. President Nixon authorized $10 million of aid, Canada added $2 million, and an array of other organizations pitched in their support as well. Over $40 million of aid was raised by December 1970.


3. HAIYUAN EARTHQUAKE (EST. 200,000-280,000 DEATHS)

Where: Haiyuan, Ningxia, China

When: December 16, 1920

Type of Natural Disasters: Earthquake (7.8 scale)

Summary: The earthquake struck with “XII” Extreme intensity—the most intense earthquake level, according to the Mercailli Intensity Scale. Primitive housing material resulted in additional damage and loss of life.

How Could the Risk Exposure Have Been Mitigated? Modern technology would’ve assisted greatly in detecting the earthquake. However, the relatively simple housing material of citizens in the area also played an integral role. In comparison, buildings in Lanzhou, a nearby capital, were largely resilient to the earthquake.

Cost to Restitute Damages: $20 million (30 million yuan). This is an estimate, as the official figures have not been released by the Chinese government. 14 counties had over 70% of their respective structures collapse, accruing quite a bit of cost. Also, livestock losses were significant. This estimate ranges from 800,000 to 1.7 million, a massive portion of the livestock in the area.


2. INDIAN OCEAN EARTHQUAKE & TSUNAMI (EST. 230,000 DEATHS)

Where: Sumatra, Indonesia (Main Earthquake), Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, several countries in Eastern Africa (Tsunami Impact)

When: December 26, 2004

Type of Natural Disasters: Earthquake (9.1-9.3 scale), triggering a Tsunami

Summary: Two massive tectonic plates, the India Plate and the Burma Plate, triggered the massive earthquake (and ensuing tsunami) after the India Plate was subducted. Since the Indian Ocean spans for hundreds of miles westward of the earthquake source, the tsunami was easily able to hit the coast of East Africa.

But for the Asian countries affected, the impact was far greater, since it was much closer. Indonesia alone suffered anywhere from 130,000 to 170,000 deaths, while Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand also had thousands of casualties. In all, roughly 230,000 to 280,000 deaths occurred from this catastrophe, and nearly 2 million people were displaced from their homes.

How Could the Risk Exposure Have Been Mitigated? The Indian Ocean had not seen a tsunami in 700 years, although that event in the 1400s is believed to have had a similar impact to this one. Most of the countries affected were poor, and thus didn’t have the necessary resources to prepare for such an event.

Cost to Restitute Damages: $15 billion. Impoverished nations were hit the hardest. While that meant the cost to replace damages was lower than one may expect, it also means that they didn’t have the full means to do so. Humanitarian aid played an integral role in the restitution of damages.


1. CHINA FLOODS (EST. 3,700,000 DEATHS)

Where: Central China

When: July-November 1931

Type of Natural Disasters: Flooding, resulting in Famine and Waterborne Diseases

Summary: China had a severe drought in the late 1920s. In 1930, the weather became even more peculiar, as snowstorms and excessive cyclones hit the area. Then, the flooding began from the Yangtze River, followed by the Huai River. At the time, Nanjing was the Chinese capital, and the floods from both rivers hit it hard. All in all, the millions of deaths occurred from a combination of flooding, starvation (no crops available due to the flooding), and waterborne diseases (typhus and cholera).

How Could the Risk Exposure Have Been Mitigated? Many of the cities affected, like Nanjing, were located in severe flood zones and did not have proper protection. They also relied heavily on farming and thus, the flooding wiped out nearly all of their food supply.

Cost to Restitute Damages: Unknown. The Chinese government reported that only 145,000 people died from the floods, which is a staggering understatement. There are no accurate reports of the cost available.

Some of the most tragic natural disasters in history would have been far less severe with the proper risk analysis and preparation. Your company may not be in jeopardy of flooding or famine, but there are countless workplace risks. Contact RCI today for professional consultation!

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