Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters

PrintPrintEmailEmail I heard many stories of a miserable night spent in roofless and sometimes wall-less houses or how they had taken refuge with neighbors in the night. I saw parents who had spent the night worrying about children who had not returned from school. I saw people worrying about relatives and friends they could not communicate with and about whose safety they feared. I saw barns flattened to the ground. Hardly a barn was left standing in the whole village. Hen coops and other such light buildings were never found.”

With telephone lines tangled and strewn across debris-ridden streets, some 376,000 phones went dead, about 25 percent of the total in New England. Apple orchards and maple farms were uprooted. Brine contaminated aquifers and reservoirs, so municipalities had to ration out potable water. For Depression-era New Englanders, it proved too much to bear alone. The Red Cross, which received pleas for aid from 19,608 families, doled out $22,000 within the next month. But as destructive as the hurricane of 1938 was, the gathering storm in Europe upstaged it, even at The New York Times , so close to the eye of the hurricane: Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich took the top headlines.

7. South Carolina–Georgia Hurricane, more than 2,000 dead.

Hurricane season got off to a bad start in 1893, and it would only get worse. The second of five great storms to hammer the East and kill a total of more than 4,000 at least came with some warning. The Weather Bureau tracked the storm for three days after it formed off Cape Verde. But when it made landfall south of Savannah on August 27, 1893, with 120-mph winds, warnings weren’t enough. In Charleston a storm surge killed a thousand people; the Savannah River rose 14 feet to flush countless victims into the ocean.

But it was a little farther out to sea, in a place warnings couldn’t reach, that the hurricane wrought its most tragic devastation. When the wind and rain descended that night, the people of the Sea Islands—mostly former slaves and their families—had to abandon their wooden shanties and lash themselves to high tree branches to escape the flooding. At least 2,000 residents of the islands were killed before morning, and another 30,000 were left homeless. Hundreds more would perish in the coming weeks from exposure and disease, which spread as the tide uncovered hastily dug graves. One doctor reported 2,542 cases of malaria on his rounds in just 8 of the more than 100 islands.

Yet, as the sun came up August 28, the survivors faced a more immediate problem. Their cash crops, cotton and sweet potatoes, were gone, their animals drowned, and their water supply contaminated. They had nothing to eat or drink and, with most of their boats dashed or strayed, no easy way to escape. Once bodies began to wash ashore on the mainland days later, followed by crowded boatloads of refugees, authorities realized that the barrier islands had suffered worse than the coast. But even then the federal and state governments declined to offer any assistance. The only relief came from the two-year-old Red Cross, and Gov. Benjamin Tillman waited nearly a month before contacting the organization. Until October 1 South Carolinians were on their own.

Once Clara Barton set up shop in a Beaufort warehouse, however, her headquarters served as a clearinghouse for African-Americans who wanted to help. Barton was quick to hire survivors as the Red Cross’s first black disaster workers; in fact, the area’s African-American residents contributed a significant chunk of both the materials and labor that put the region back on its feet. During the nine months she spent in South Carolina, Barton later wrote, “the submerged lands were drained, three hundred miles of ditches made, a million feet of lumber purchased and houses built, fields and gardens planted with the best seed in the United States, and the work all done by the people themselves.”

6. Peshtigo Fire, 1871, 1,200–2,400 dead.

Every disaster on this list must have seemed like hell on earth. But the fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on October 8, 1871, re-created with the cruelest accuracy a scene of Miltonian terror. Buildings, trees, horses, people, and the ground itself all burned; even the sky burst into flame. It was the deadliest fire in American history, but it’s famous only as an also-ran: It ignited in the same hour that 220 miles to the south, Mrs. O’Leary’s fabled cow kicked over a lantern to start the Chicago fire.

The pine and spruce woods of northeastern Wisconsin were Peshtigo’s raison d’être. When Chicago’s first mayor, the millionaire William Ogden, bought two sawmills near Green Bay in 1856, he immediately expanded operations, and Peshtigo mushroomed. By 1871 the Peshtigo woodenware factory—shingles, broom handles, tubs, barrel heads—was the largest in America. Between the factory and the two sawmills, the Peshtigo Company employed 800 men in a town of 1,700.

But the enterprising fervor that fertilized the town would also annihilate it. Lumberjacks left huge piles of branches and sawdust on the forest floor. Men clearing land for the railroad torched the trees, stumps, and unused buildings in their path, as did farmers preparing their plots. Fires burned all the time; Wisconsinites were used to it.

The year had been unusually dry. So little snow had fallen the previous winter that the rivers were too low to carry logs to the mills. The forest hadn’t had any rain all summer. “Everything around Green Bay is parched and cracked,” commented the Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle in September. Little blazes began to flare out of control.