Top 5 Most Expensive Natural Disasters in History

By Bo Zhang, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
March 30, 2011; 7:00 AM
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White smokes rises from burning houses in Yamadamachi in Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, Saturday, March 12, 2011, one day after a strong earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami in the area. (AP Photo/Kenji Shimizu, The Yomiuri Shimbun)

The aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan has been devastating. Meanwhile, the government is struggling to contain a nuclear crisis, which adds to the country's disaster.

While analysts are estimating that the Japan disaster is likely to be the costliest on record, AccuWeather.com has calculated the world's five most expensive natural disasters in history.

1. Earthquake and tsunami, Japan (2011)

Cost: $235 billion (by the World Bank)

So far, 8,649 people have been confirmed dead and another 13,262 are missing since the 9.0-magnitude quake struck off the coast near Sendai, Japan, on March 11, 2011. The degree of damage caused by the earthquake and resulting tsunami was enormous. Videos show that almost no parts of any structures were left standing in the worst affected areas.

Failure of the cooling system at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant intensified the situation, resulting in evacuation of about 200,000 people residing around the plant.

The World Bank on March 21 said that damage might reach $235 billion, while Japan's government had a higher estimate of $309 billion. The damage estimate could go even higher as it does not include losses in economic activity from planned power outages or the broader impact of the nuclear crisis, making the disaster world's most expensive on record.

2. Kobe earthquake, Japan (1995)

Cost: $100 billion (by the World Bank)

The Great Hanshin earthquake, or Kobe earthquake, occurred on Jan. 17, 1995, in the southern part of Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. The focus of the quake was located 16 km (10 miles) beneath its epicenter, 20 km (12 miles) away from the city of Kobe. Measured at 6.8 magnitude, the earthquake killed nearly 6,500 people, making it the deadliest disaster in the world that year.

The Kobe quake caused about $100 billion in destruction, according to an calculation by the World Bank, but Japanese trade rebounded within a year, with imports recovering fully and exports back to 85 percent of normal levels.

3. Hurricane Katrina, U.S. (2005)

Cost: $81 billion total damage cost (by NOAA)

Hurricane Katrina of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the worst disasters in the U.S. history. It made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 25, 2005. At least 1,836 people died in the hurricane and in the subsequent floods. Five years later, thousands of displaced residents in Mississippi and Louisiana were still living in temporary accommodations.

The total damage from Katrina is estimated at $81 billion (2005 U.S. dollars). It also generated the largest single loss in the history of insurance - $41 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

4. Northridge earthquake, California, U.S. (1994)

Cost: $42 billion (by NOAA)

While there have been more powerful earthquakes than the magnitude 6.7 Northridge quake, it caused large-scale damage throughout Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley due to the location of its epicenter.

The Northridge earthquake occurred on Jan. 17, 1994, in Reseda, a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles, Calif., and lasted for about 10-20 seconds. The quake resulted in more than 60 deaths and more than 5,000 injuries. More than 25,000 people were left homeless, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In addition, the earthquake caused an estimated $25 billion in damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in the U.S. history.

5. Sichuan earthquake, China (2008)

Cost: $29 billion (by the World Bank)

The May 12, 2008, Sichuan earthquake was a deadly earthquake that measured at 8.0 magnitude. The quake killed about 70,000 people and left more than 18,000 missing. The epicenter was 80 km (50 miles) west-northwest of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where almost 4 million people resided.

Estimates put direct damage and losses from the earthquake at $29 billion, with indirect damage much higher.

Note: The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which caused about 250,000 deaths, is not included on this list. Economic losses there amounted to only $14 billion in today's prices, partly because of low property and land values in the affected areas.

However, money is only one scale of evaluating the impacts of natural disasters.

"It (money) does not apply to the measures of human lives lost," AccuWeather.com Meteorologist Jim Andrews says. "A total of about 250,000 deaths in the Indian Ocean Tsunami can never be compared by economic loss."

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