Japan's Quake, Tsunami Among Most Costly of All Time

A report estimates the quake's economic toll could top $122 billion.


Since the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit northeast Japan on March 11, the country has seemed to be caught in a disastrous spiral of devastation. The earthquake and its resultant tsunami wiped out entire villages and have displaced more than 500,000 Japanese citizens. The Japanese now also fear more lasting damage in the form of nuclear crisis, after explosions occurred at the nation's damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. The widespread suffering caused by this crisis may be unimaginable for people watching thousands of miles away, but new analysis from the World Bank helps to put the catastrophe into context. [See photos of the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.]

A World Bank report released this week shows the Japanese disaster to be one of the most costly in recent memory. The report estimates the quake's economic toll at $122 to 235 billion U.S. dollars, and furthermore estimating that the country could take five years to recover. The report also says that 15,214 are dead or missing.

The catastrophe in Japan is sure to be remembered as one of the greatest disasters of modern times. The high-magnitude quake, plus its widespread repercussions, puts it among the world's most costly recent disasters. The human and economic costs also far outweigh those of Japan's last major earthquake, the Kobe earthquake in 1995. But in terms of the GDP of the countries hit by these disasters, Japan's current situation is overshadowed by several other recent disasters. The below table compares the quake with other recent natural disasters in terms of death toll and cost of recovery, as well as that economic cost as a percentage of countries' GDPs at the times the disasters happened.

Disaster Fatalities Cost GDP (Current USD) Cost/GDP
Earthquake/tsunami, Japan, 2011 27,000 (dead or missing) 235,000,000,000 5,068,996,399,491 4.6%
Haiti earthquake, 2010 250,000 8,220,000,000 6,478,628,513 126.9%
Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar, 2008 138,366 4,242,800,000 31,367,000,000 13.5%
Hurricane Katrina, United States, 2005 1,836 141,650,000,000 12,579,700,000,000 1.1%
Tsunami, Southeast Asia, 2004 230,000 5,400,000,000 256,836,883,305 2.1%
Kobe Earthquake, Japan, 1995 6,434 145,220,000,000 5,264,380,244,016 2.8%

Sources: Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Associated Press, Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator. Cost figures reflect the highest cost estimates for each disaster.

Note: Total death toll for the 2004 tsunami is an estimate for all affected countries. Cost and cost/GDP are for Indonesia, that disaster's largest and hardest-hit country.