Earthquake damage depends on what area is hit. If an unpopulated region is struck, there will be low loss of life or property. If it hits a large city, there may be many injuries and destruction. Many of the areas at risk on the Ring of Fire are largely populated. Major earthquakes hitting those areas today could produce terrible damage.
Most global cities have at least tripled their populations in the last hundred years, so a major earthquake could collapse skyscrapers, factories, and power plants. Millions of people could feel the shock waves, not only of the initial tremor, but of the aftershocks, tsunamis, landslides, floods, and social effects.
Earthquakes have the power to uproot trees and send them crashing into buildings. They can trigger landslides and avalanches, and cause flooding and tsunamis. Human structures are also at risk. It is interesting to note that tall buildings will sustain the least damage if they are located directly at the epicenter. This is because they can withstand the up-and-down motion of P-waves. S-waves, on the other hand, occur far away from the epicenter, and cause the greatest stress by shaking buildings from side to side. These buildings are often knocked off their foundations.
Buildings with thick, heavy walls do not resist shock waves very well. Violent earthquakes often cause structures to collapse, burying people underneath. Brick buildings are the most vulnerable. Chimneys and heavy roof tiles are often shaken off during the tremors, and can crash into bystanders or passerbys.
Constructions on soft or filled-in soil suffer the most because they feel shock waves most directly. Buildings on bedrock suffer less damage because the ground is firmer.
The shaking of the earth is sometimes not the greatest disaster. It is in the ensuing fires and floods that often the greatest damage occurs. In the 1906 earthquake, it was the subsequent fires that did the majority of the damage. An earthquake can also destroy dams high above a city or valley, causing floods to sweep down and sweep away everything in their path.
A 60-second or less earthquake can cause devastation that continues for years after the first tremor. In 1972, a series of severe earthquakes struck Managua, Nicaragua. Fifteen years later, the city still looked the way it had a week after the earthquake hit, because the country did not have the money necessary to rebuild.