The Worst Places to Be When an Earthquake Strikes

Most dangerous places to be in an earthquake

We’ve secured our bookshelves, packed go-kits, and set emergency plans. We like to think we’ll be cozy at home when the “Big One” hits. But, consider the worst-case scenarios: What are the most dangerous places to be when a major earthquake happens? We explore three earthquake danger spots.

In general, the worst place to be during an earthquake is near an earthquake. (Duh.) If you want to avoid earthquakes completely, stay away from the Ring of Fire (or Circum-Pacific Belt), the 25,000 miles of Pacific Ocean basin that is host to 90% of the world’s earthquakes.

If you do live somewhere like Tokyo, Jakarta, or San Francisco, and are at higher risk of experiencing an earthquake, where are the worst places to be when they strike? A few nightmares for your consideration.

Earthquake Danger Spot: Unreinforced Masonry Alley

It’s not the shaking from the earthquake that causes injury; it’s the falling stuff. With unreinforced masonry, the walls fall apart from the building. Imagine one brick falling on your head from 10 feet above. Now imagine a lot of them falling on you from much higher.

At a recent meeting, Kate and a group of colleagues sat in exactly such a place: the outdoor patio of a restaurant in LA-Japantown in an alley between two URMs.  They got lucky.

Obsolete buildings cause severe damage to life and property during earthquakes. Seismic retrofitting such buildings can be expensive, but life-saving.

Earthquake Danger Spot: Elevators

Hanging objects swing in earthquakes, regardless of their size. Being 12 floors up, stuck in an 8-foot metal box, and tossed around “like a pinball” likely ranks near the bottom of anyone’s list. (And that’s before the power goes out.)

According to the Government of Canada, if you are in an elevator during an earthquake, “hit the button for every floor and get out as soon as you can.” Good luck with that.

Earthquake Danger Spot: On Reclaimed Land

During extreme shaking, loose soil from reclaimed land can liquefy– transforming what seemed to be solid ground into quicksand. Reclaimed land makes up the vast majority of San Francisco’s Bayside waterfront. (For a one-two punch, how about being in a glass elevator in a skyscraper built on landfill?)

If these three nightmare scenarios aren’t enough for you, consider the 13 worst places to be in Japan during an earthquake. I’d choose an elevator in San Francisco over Komagatake Ropeway every time.

In the end, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” might be the best advice to follow after “Be Prepared.” Even in California, you’re far more likely to be killed in a car accident, murdered, or even struck by lightning than killed in an earthquake. (Hooray?)