Though it wasn’t technically the most powerful earthquake in history, it had a devastating death toll due to where it hit and because of the circumstances of the people that lived there.
Many of the people lived in yaodongs:
These are towns and cities built into the side of mountains. These homes were not reinforced and didn’t have strong bases of sediment to protect them from shifts in the ground. (Source: Ruins of Hua County Earthquake. Science Museums of China) The quake hit immediately in one of these areas, causing a huge collapse inwards, instantly crushing most of the population. The earthquake also caused the collapse of many buildings in the region, which weren’t prepared for the tectonic shift.
Additionally, the loose soil was shaken, causing massive landslides, which engulfed several towns. These landslides also caused the diversion of an entire river, which flooded several towns. 15 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, the ground in the town of Weinan instantly sank 10 feet, killing 50% of the population. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it caused huge fires that spread across the region due to the dry season. (Source: A History of Civilization in 50 Disasters. Gale Eaton.) The deadliest earthquake was a Perfect Storm, the coming together of a domino effect in a densely-populated region, resulting in the deaths of ~830,000 people. This earthquake was the equivalent of an Irwin Allen disaster movie in real life. It was really, really, really bad.
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