Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters

PrintPrintEmailEmail In the first week of October the air was so thick with smoke that ships on Green Bay and Lake Michigan had to navigate by compass; harbormasters blew foghorns to guide them ashore. A yellow haze blotted out the sun on the afternoon of October 8, and Peshtigo’s birds and barn cats embarked on a determined exodus out of town.

The same story circles in all these disasters.

At around nine o’clock that night an eerie roaring descended upon Peshtigo, and then fire seemed to fall from the sky. People tried to flee, but windborne flames outran them. As the blaze traveled over the marshlands, it ignited rising gases in what one witness called “a great black balloon-shaped object which whirled over the tops of trees and exploded.” Some made it to the Peshtigo River and sought safety in its steaming waters. “It was about ten o’clock when we entered into the river,” wrote the Reverend Peter Pernin. “Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would, at least be safe from fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over the land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire.” As temperatures reached 700 degrees, others—men, women, children, entire families—turned to ash even as they wondered where to seek sanctuary. The entire region was ablaze.

In an hour Peshtigo was obliterated. The fire kept on until it had nothing left to burn, consuming nearly 2,000 square miles in Wisconsin and Michigan and killing some 2,000 people, 800 in Peshtigo alone. By the time word of the tragedy got through to Madison, the governor and most of the state officials had left for Chicago to aid victims of what the national press was calling the Great Fire. Chicago’s story—the city had lost maybe a fifth as many people as Wisconsin—got out first and captured the country’s sympathy. With donations from all over the world, Chicago quickly rebuilt, better than before. Peshtigo, on the other hand, never regained its former prosperity. Its capital, the forest, was gone.

5. Hurricane Katrina, 2005, 2057 dead.

Over and over in this list circles the same story: There was no way to predict the calamity, no way to warn the potential victims, and no way to stop the onslaught. Then comes Katrina. It slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29, 2005, on live television, and the whole world watched as New Orleans flooded, parents struggled to keep their babies’ heads above water, and 25,000 people lived without a roof, toilet, or lights in the Superdome for six days.

As early as August 23, the very day that Katrina formed over the Bahamas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was already predicting a busier than usual hurricane season. Meteorologists tracked Katrina as it traveled over Florida, where it killed nine people, and into the Gulf of Mexico. Federal, state, and local leaders knew the storm’s impact would be huge. The people of New Orleans knew the storm would be huge. But in an era of satellite imaging, 24-hour weather channels, and the Emergency Broadcast System, at least 20 percent of the city’s population lingered in its path. And once the hurricane hit with the fury everyone expected, its 142-mph winds and 20-foot storm surge breaking the levees and stranding tens of thousands of people without food, shelter, or drinkable water, it took relief organizations days to ferry the victims out of town. So we arrive at the question the press, the government, and the public have been asking for a year now: Why?

Or, more accurately, who, as in, Who is at fault? Congress, for underfunding plans to bolster the levees? Local and state governments, for neither ordering evacuation until it was too late nor providing adequate transportation? FEMA and the Homeland Security Department, for their tardy, insufficient relief? The victims themselves, for not getting out earlier? President Bush, for allowing all of the above? As America still tries to find answers, the rebuilding of New Orleans proceeds slowly. To date, about a quarter of the previous residents have returned, and one study suggests the city will regain only half its former population by 2008.

4. Louisiana Hurricane, 1893, 2,000-plus dead.

The Weather Bureau in New Orleans predicted light showers for October 1, 1893, but as morning turned to afternoon, drizzles turned to downpour, accompanied by an ominous, distant thunder that, as it menaced ever closer, brought stronger and stronger winds. Then, at 6:30 p.m., propelled by gusts whose speeds couldn’t even be measured (they toppled or destroyed all the instruments in their path), 50-foot waves crashed above Chandeleur Island. Two hundred people crowded into the lantern room of the Port Pontchartrain lighthouse as the streets of New Orleans became rivers marked by listing sign-posts.

Many of the 2,000 killed that day were poor fishermen and their families; the storm is un-officially known as the Cheniere Caminada hurricane, after the island that lost 779 of its 1,471 residents. As the chapel bell tolled in the gale, the hurricane razed all but four of the fishing village’s houses and most of its vegetation, leaving the land empty save for the bodies of more than half the population. “They were killed by the sheer pressure and fury of the wind,” Scribner’s magazine reported the next February. “In the settlements where the storm was worst, not a single child survived, and very few women… . in the center of the storm—where 200 fishermen dwelt—not a soul escaped.”

Those who did survive huddled under collapsed roofs or clung onto anything that floated. One man was rescued 100 miles away eight days later, rafting on a piece of debris.