Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters

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There is something uniquely chilling about a natural disaster, the uncontrolled, unpreventable fury of normally benign elements: a blue sky now black exploding in water and electricity; the air around us sudd

But if the year of recrimination over Hurricane Katrina has shown us anything, it’s the potency of human intervention in the hours and days before and after those moments. A nation that might have grown blasé was reminded late last summer how vital protective engineering and prompt relief can be—even if the lesson came in their failure. To mark the first anniversary of Katrina, here is an assessment of the 10 deadliest natural disasters to strike the United States. As a whole, they paint a sobering picture of the impermanence of human enterprise, but they also reveal some fascinating—and familiar—patterns.

Eight of these disasters occurred within a 50-year period, a fatal nexus in U.S. history when the population had grown dense enough to be wiped out in large numbers by one localized event, but before modern meteorological tools, warning systems, and telecommunications could forecast storms and allow people ample time to flee or take cover. The one disaster that doesn’t fall in that period, of course, is Katrina.

On the anniversary of Katrina, a look at what they have—and haven’t—taught us.

Despite the years between them, Katrina and the other calamities share several unfortunate refrains. In the inattention paid to the New Orleans levees we hear echoes of both the poor maintenance of the dam that unleashed the Johnstown flood and the refusal of Galveston officials to build a seawall; the government’s lax response after Katrina plays like a reprise of Florida’s in 1928. In fact, recurring themes run through all these disasters. First, as horrifying as earthquakes and tornadoes are, history tells us that when disaster strikes America, it does its worst mixing wind and water. Six of the 10 deadliest American natural disasters were hurricanes, joined by one tornado, one flood, one earthquake, and one forest fire. And all 10 left behind common images: victims clinging to debris for survival, cities and towns transformed into piles of rubble, the ground littered with so many dead that there was not enough room for graves. Many of the casualty figures probably underestimate the actual losses, since in most cases entire families were wiped out, with no one left to report them gone.

Taken together, these events also show that disaster, be it Katrina or the earthquake in San Francisco, almost always hits hardest below the poverty line. Farthest from the reach of telegraph, phone, or radio, the poor have also had the flimsiest housing and most limited access to transportation. So with no warning of impending doom and no way to escape, indigents have often been trapped in shacks that offered little protection. In the Southeast, where hurricanes are most common, the poor have been disproportionately black and, as we saw with Katrina—and as our forebears saw in Charleston, Savannah, the Sea Islands, Lake Okeechobee, and Cheniere Carminada—disproportionately affected when nature turns ugly.

10. Tristate Tornado, 1925, 695 dead.

The cyclone that touched down at 1:01 p.m. on March 18, 1925, just outside Ellington, Missouri, was so massive many of its victims didn’t even recognize it as a tornado. As the mile-wide storm barreled over town after town in its 219-mile path across three states, residents alarmed by what sounded like an oncoming freight train checked the sky for the telltale funnel, only to find a huge black cloud hugging the ground. With no tornado warning system in place—forecasting was in its infancy, and radio had yet to become a house-hold item in the rural Midwest—people had only moments to find shelter from what was fast shaping up to be history’s deadliest twister.

Even those who made it inside weren’t necessarily safe. As the storm traveled across Missouri and into southern Illinois, its winds overpowered the prairie’s wood-frame houses, many of which did not have basements. In the two and a half hours it spent in Illinois, the storm killed 600 people and consumed five towns nearly whole. Murphysboro lost 234 residents and 150 of its 200 blocks. The tornado was now advancing at 73 miles per hour, a shrieking spiral of debris, chaos, and death. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported two days later, “the air was filled with 10,000 things. Boards, poles, cans, garments, stoves, whole sides of the little frame houses, in some cases the houses themselves, were picked up and smashed to earth. And living beings too. A baby was blown from its mother’s arms. A cow, picked up by the wind, was hurled into the village restaurant.” Farm families emerged from their cellars to discover trees uprooted, houses and cars gone, and new objects on the lawn transplanted from 50 miles away.

In Gorham, Illinois, where the storm killed or injured half the population, the town’s children found themselves trapped in their collapsing schoolhouse. As one young girl told the Post-Dispatch : “The walls seemed to fall in, all around us. Then the floor at one end of the building gave way. We all slipped or slid in that direction. If it hadn’t been for the seats it would have been like sliding down a cellar door… . Children all around me were cut and bleeding. They cried and screamed. It was something awful. I had to close my eyes.” Thirty-three students died before the storm moved on.

The tornado shrank as it blew into Indiana, but it still had enough power to destroy one town and several farms. After ripping up half of Princeton, the winds finally dissipated at 4:30 p.m.