The determining factor in earthquake fatalities is more the structural soundness of buildings in the affected area rather than the intensity of the quake. A very powerful earth quake can hit a well prepared location with a structurally sound infrastructure and not cause many casualties at all, while a much weaker earth quake can hit an unprepared and not earth quake safe area and cause devastation and numerous human casualties.
Sfcharles is right, it depends more on preparedness than the strength of the earthquake. A good example of this is the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile earlier this year. The Haiti earthquake was a 7.0 on the richter scale, but caused at least 230,000 deaths. An earthquake of that magnitude hadn’t hit Haiti in over 200 years. The Chilean earthquake was an 8.8 on the Richter scale, one of the strongest earthquakes on record. However, only 521 people died because Chile is used to large earthquakes and was much more prepared.
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