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20,000 Dead In 1999 Earthquakes To Date

18th Oct 1999

From Colombia to India, Turkey to Taiwan, Mexico, and now California, 1999 has been the year of the earthquake. More than 20,000 people have died in six serious earthquakes this year, with many thousands more left injured and homeless. The worst was in north-western Turkey two months ago, when more than 16,000 died in the densely populated area around Izmit. Seismologists said yesterday's quake in California's sparsely populated Mojave desert would have been "devastating" if the epicentre had been 100 miles to the west in Los Angeles. Geologists know where earthquakes are likely to occur: the difficulty is predicting when. A spokesman for the California Institute of Technology said: "It's almost impossible to know when they will come. All we can do is take as many precautions as we can." Yet despite the doom-mongers who blame the approach of the Millennium for the recent rash of earthquakes, they are no more likely now than in the last Millennium, according to seismologists. The difference is that more people are at risk from earthquakes today because there are more people on the planet: six billion, as the United Nations said this week, and growing by 90 million a year. Rich countries have helped to cut the potential death toll in earthquake-prone areas by developing anti-earthquake technology and constructing "flexible" buildings that sway during tremors, but remain standing. But this has not happened in poorer countries, where low-quality buildings, combined with fast-growing populations, has made them vulnerable to a heavy death toll when an earthquake strikes. The Turkish earthquake was much worse than it should have been because the government ignored warnings from experts that its industrial heartland and tens of thousands of homes were being built on the highest-risk earthquake zones. Prof Erdogan Yuzer, president of the Turkish committee of the International Association of Engineering Geology, said: "People don't believe it's going to happen. They don't believe in science." The number of potential victims has also been increased by large-scale migration from rural areas to towns and cities - many in coastal areas around the Pacific Rim, including the Americas, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Coasts are vulnerable to earthquakes because they were formed by the movement of tectonic plates and remain on fault lines. Earthquakes are most likely to occur where a continental tectonic plate meets an oceanic plate, such as in the Pacific Rim, or where a continental plate meets another continental plate, such as in Turkey. But some people in California are convinced that the state hasbeen more vulnerable to earthquakes as a result of American nuclear tests ca rried out in the Mojave desert. Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the United States Geological Survey, said the Mojave quake was a fresh tremor and not a long-delayed aftershock to the powerful Landers quake, 7.2 on the Richter scale, that rocked the area in 1992. The earth is hit by up to 10,000 quakes every day, according to geologists. Most do no damage at all and cause no loss of life, but around 400 a year are serious, measuring more than 5.5 on the Richter scale. Britain is not immune to earthquakes. There have been 25 earthquakes measuring 4.5 or more on the Richter scale this century, but all in remote areas. In 1580, two people in Britain were killed by earthquakes in the Dover Strait. The cost of repairing the physical damage caused by quakes is enormous. Insurers estimate that last year was the most expensive since records began, with losses totalling $93 billion from all natural disasters. This year's figure could be higher. The United Nations has declared the 1990s the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. Last Wednesday, more than 1,000 British schools took part in an "IDNDR day" to promote education about disasters.

  • 1 October 1999: Mexico City rocked by earthquake
  • 23 September 1999: Aftershocks delay desperate hunt for survivors of quake
  • 22 September 1999: 4,000 feared dead in quake
  • 9 September 1999: Aftershocks keep Athens in the grip of terror
  • 8 September 1999: 52 killed and many hurt as earthquake rocks Athens
  • 18 August 1999: Shocks may go on for months, say scientists
  • 18 August 1999: 2,000 die in Turkish earthquake
  • 26 January 1999: 250 killed as quake hits Colombian coffee area.

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