Thursday, November 01, 2012

What's Worse: Hurricanes or Earthquakes?

I've now experienced two major natural disasters: the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 and Hurricane Sandy.

What's scarier? Well, the worst thing about an earthquake is you have no warning. But the best thing is you have no warning.

Waiting for Sandy.

A hurricane (or whatever Sandy was) is more of a slow build. It's slow to arrive and slow for the effects to materialize. You don't realize how bad things are until later, when the subway floods, when the levee breaks, when cars start washing away.

An earthquake is instant. It rends the earth beneath your feet, seizing the thing you most take for granted  solid ground — and using it to betray you.

Photo courtesy of the Examiner.

If you look purely at the loss of life, hurricanes have a much bigger impact than earthquakes  even big quakes.

The Loma Prieta quake had a magnitude of 6.9 and completely transformed the face of Northern California's cities. It reduced much of Santa Cruz's downtown to rubble, cracked the cantilever section of the Bay Bridge and forced the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway. (All these things set the stage for great improvements in the area's infrastructure, but that's a different story.)

You can't argue with that devastation. And yet, the death toll was 63 people. Sandy has already claimed more than 70, and the number's still rising.

The Loma Prieta quake caused $7 billion in damage (almost $13 billion when adjusted for inflation). Sandy is already approaching $50 billion.

If you add up every U.S. earthquake in the past century, they've killed a total of fewer than 500 people. Hurricanes have claimed almost 7,000 lives over that time frame. (Note: These are just some back-of-the-envelope numbers I compiled from various Internet sources. And they doesn't include the 1906 quake, because that was more than 100 years ago. I'd love to see if someone has analyzed this in more detail.)

I still think a quake is scarier, but then, I haven't experienced a Category 5 hurricane. If there were cows flying by the window, I might feel differently.

We also came out of Sandy with few problems. We never lost power (despite some flickering), and our windows held strong. Roosevelt Island did flood, and the water overtook my son's preschool playground. But it receded just as quickly.

Now it's hard to tell any of it happened. On Roosevelt Island, at least.

This morning I got on the island's shuttle bus and the tram to Midtown. Other than transit being free, it felt like an ordinary day.