Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters

PrintPrintEmailEmail Almost immediately relief boats sailed from New Orleans with supplies and drinking water, although not soon enough for one resident of Buras, Louisiana, who wrote the Daily Picayune : “In the name of the residents and greatly suffering persons of the 4th and 10th wards of this parish of Plaquemines, I call upon you in the name of humanity and aid us… . The whole people here are destitute… . The few stores … are badly damaged and what they have left … is no where sufficient to suffice the wants of sufferers. Without exaggeration … I will say that if prompt aid is not given, the many sufferers may have to resort to terrible means to obtain food for the starving.”

Once the dead of Cheniere Caminada were buried in shallow trenches—or, when room ran out, burned where they lay—the survivors abandoned the island. (Some came back years later, only to be annihilated by a second hurricane in 1915.) All told, the storm caused $5 million in damage, ruining apple and rice crops, sinking 285 ships, washing out railroads, and even flooding the distant Patent Office in Washington, D.C. The hurricane, having killed seven more people in Alabama as it continued northeast from Louisiana, finally died in the ocean off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on October 5.

3. Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Flood, 1889, estimated 2,200-plus dead.

Floods were common in Johnstown in spring. Stony Creek and the forking Conemaugh River, which ran down from the Allegheny Mountains to form the town’s northern, western, and southern borders, overflowed all the time. As soon as a heavy rain began to fall on May 30, 1889, local employers sent residents home as a matter of routine to secure their valuables in their attics. But when, the next day, the Reverend H. L. Chapman looked out his front door to see a man clinging to a boxcar riding a wave down the street, he knew the South Fork Dam must have gone.

The state had built the dam 36 years earlier to create a reservoir on the Conemaugh for the Pennsylvania Canal. Once railroads took over the canal’s job, the three-mile-long reservoir changed hands until the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club bought it in 1879. In addition to raising the lake level and stocking its waters with bass, the group of Pittsburgh industrialists (including Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick) made several ill-conceived modifications to the dam. After they lowered it to allow more room for passing carriages, the dam stood only 4 feet above the spillway, and debris constantly clogged the screens installed to keep the fish from escaping. Standing in the hills 450 feet above Johnstown, the dam had failed once in 1862, but since the reservoir was only half-full at the time, it did little damage.

At 10:00 a.m. on May 31, however, the club’s president noticed the lake level was rising rapidly. When attempts to build up the dam and dig a second spillway failed, he sent an engineer to wire a warning to Johnstown 14 miles downstream. Few in town got the message before the dam burst at 3:10 p.m. and sent the lake’s 20 million tons of water rushing down the valley at 40 mph.

“Then suddenly a freight car reared up over my head.”

The 40-foot wave reached Johnstown at 4:07 p.m. Some of the city’s 30,000 residents survived by hiding in attics or climbing on floating debris, but thousands more were swept away, along with entire buildings. “I could see a huge wall advancing with incredible rapidity down the diagonal street. It was not recognizable as water, it was a dark mass in which seethed houses, freight cars, trees, and animals,” said the 16-year-old Victor Heiser, who rode a section of his barn roof to safety. “A tree would shoot out of the water; a huge girder would come thundering down. As these trees and girders drove booming into the jam, I jumped them desperately, one after another. Then suddenly a freight car reared up over my head; I could not leap that. But just as it plunged toward me, [a] brick building gave way, and my raft shot out from beneath the freight car like a bullet from a gun. In a moment more I was in comparatively open water… . I was still being swept along, but the danger had lessened.”

When news of the flood reached New York, more than 100 newspapers and magazines sent correspondents to Pennsylvania. The stories they relayed launched a wave of charity—money, food, medical supplies, clothing, and lumber—from around the world. Aided by Clara Barton and the Red Cross, flood survivors, living in tents or temporary shacks, began the five-year process of rebuilding their town.

And although more than any other disaster on this list, the Johnstown flood betrays the hand of man in its creation, judges ruled it an act of God. All lawsuits brought against the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club failed.

2. Great Okeechobee Hurricane in Florida, 1928, estimated over 2,500 dead.

On September 15, 1928, news of a hurricane that had killed 1,500 in the Caribbean began filtering over to Florida’s east coast. By the time a tidal surge and 150-mph winds slammed Palm Beach the next night, most residents had fled or barricaded themselves inside their homes. Piers were washed hundreds of yards away, houses turned 90 degrees on their foundations, trees upended. Palm Beach was already a world-famous resort, so as soon as the skies cleared, the governor and local relief agencies rushed to help the city and surrounding coast.

But it would be days before they realized that in the isolated villages around Lake Okeechobee just a few miles away, the devastation was even worse. Few of the area’s residents, almost all of whom were black migrant farm workers, had heard about the coming storm; most went about their jobs unawares.