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To live in California is to deal with earthquakes. Tremors are recorded on a daily basis and earthquakes are powerful enough to do significant damage. Past earthquakes, devastating in their scope, have catapulted both the government and its citizens to improve architectural standards and preparedness levels. Past generations of Californians were not always so lucky. Here is a short list of some of the state’s most devastating earthquakes.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

Magnitude: 7.8

Immortalized by Hollywood and devastating to all who then called San Francisco home, this catastrophic quake rocked the city and the entire northern California coast. Caused by a northward and southward rupture along the San Andreas Fault which extended for 296 miles, the quake and cataclysmic fire that resulted from it remains one of the worst natural disasters ever to occur in the U.S. Estimates as to the number of quake-related deaths vary, but are considered to be between 3,000 and 6,000 people. Over 80 percent of San Francisco was destroyed, leaving most of its citizens homeless and without shelter of any kind. The quake took place on April 18th at 5:12 a.m.

Loma Prieta Earthquake

Magnitude: 7.1

Also known as the World Series Quake, the Loma Prieta Earthquake took place on October 17, 1989 at 5:04 p.m. It disrupted far more than the World Series match between the Bay Area’s two major league baseball teams, scheduled to occur that evening. The fifteen-second quake which occurred in the San Francisco Bay area, 10 miles from Santa Cruz, also collapsed portions of Interstate 880 and caused severe damage to areas of San Francisco, 70 miles away. Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Los Gatos were also affected and over 60 deaths in total reported. Catastrophic damage to property resulted in over $6 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster ever to occur in the country, up until that time.

San Fernando Earthquake

Magnitude: 6.6

This earthquake is also known as the Sylmar because it broke the surface on the San Fernando fault zone in the Sylmar-San Fernando area on February 9, 1971. The 12-mile rupture resulted in an earthquake which caused 65 deaths and $500 million in property damage. The Veterans Administration Hospital was the worst hit building and scene of most of the grisly deaths, caused by the building’s collapse. Freeway overpasses were also affected and it has been speculated that the loss of life would have been much greater had the quake struck during rush-hour traffic rather than at 6:01 a.m.

Fort Tejon Earthquake

Magnitude: 7.9

One of Southern California’s most devastating quakes, the Fort Tejon earthquake took place on January 9, 1857 at 8:20 a.m. The San Andreas fault rupture causing the quake occurred near the city of Parkfield in the Cholame Valley and affected an area of almost 187 miles. Amazingly, only one reported fatality marks that day, but property loss was astronomical. Much of the damage affected the Army post at Fort Tejon, rendering buildings unusable. Fissures and hydrologic changes were reported as far away as the Colorado River delta and affected the natural ground beds of the Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Santa Clara Rivers.

Owens Valley Earthquake

Magnitude: 7.4

This 1872 earthquake decimated the small town of Lone Pine, where 52 out of 59 homes were destroyed and 27 people killed. The quake’s grim death toll is estimated to be 30-60 overall. Caused by ruptures occurring on the Owens Valley Fault Line, the quake is considered one of the most severe ever to hit the state. Thousands of aftershocks, some quite severe, continued to harass the countryside from San Diego to Red Bluff for almost two months’ time. The quake, which hit on March 26, 1872, altered the natural landscape considerably and was felt from Mexico to Oregon.

Kern County Earthquake

Magnitude: 7.5

Striking in the middle of the night, this July 21, 1952 earthquake occurred on the White Wolf, a reverse fault line situated north of the Garlock and San Andreas Fault Line intersection. The earthquake was responsible for 12 deaths and shook a massive geographic area from Reno, Nevada to San Francisco. Property damage exceeded $50 million and included pipeline ruptures in a mining operation in Owens Lake and a Southern Pacific Railroad line near Bear Mountain. At least 100 buildings in Kern County required demolition and California’s agribusiness was severely disrupted by flooding. At least 20 aftershocks registered a magnitude of 5.0 or greater.


Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.



To learn more, visit CBS Los Angeles’s Earthquake Resource Center