Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters

PrintPrintEmailEmail When the storm descended that night, the winds pushed the waters of Lake Okeechobee, already glutted with three weeks’ worth of heavy rain, over the earthen dam at its southern end. A 25-foot wave flooded nearby towns, killing hundreds before they could escape. “I was holding onto the roof and calling to my mother,” recalled Helen McCormick, who was 13 when the storm hit. “I’d say, ‘Mama, are you there?’ and she’d answer, until after a while, she didn’t answer anymore.” Of the 19 family members gathered in McCormick’s house, only Helen and her stepfather lived.

Once the wave receded, a survivor remembered, “We were hauling bodies out of the water two and three at a time.” As Okeechobee survivors buried their dead en masse in unmarked pits in dry ground to the north or cremated them on pyres, they received little outside assistance. “We didn’t have great big buildings like they have now,” a survivor explained 75 years later. “All we had was dead people, and people don’t count.” Fearing a drop in tourism, Florida politicians initially covered up the extent of the destruction, a job made easier by the fact that two-thirds of the dead were itinerant blacks. But the American Legion ignored the politicians and sent workers to aid the rescue and recovery effort, while the Red Cross, now expert at dealing with disaster, set up 22 centers to distribute food, clothing, and shelter and helped survivors put their lives back together.

1. Galveston Hurricane, 1900, estimated 8,000 dead.

“It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.” That’s what Isaac Cline, the chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Galveston, wrote in the Galveston News in 1891. The only deep-water port in Texas, Galveston was the country’s second-richest city per capita, and its residents enjoyed a strong sense of hubris along with their fashionable architecture and sophisticated theater. Cline, for his part, argued that the island city did not need a seawall, basing his assumptions partly on scientific analysis—he believed the relatively shallow waters of the Gulf would deter storm surges—and partly on luck. Galveston had not been hit by a hurricane since its founding in 1839, and only two had come ashore on the island throughout the nineteenth century.

Thousands died, but the city was self-sufficient within six months.

But on the morning of September 8, 1900, Cline himself rode up and down the beach in a horse-cart begging wave watchers to evacuate the island. He had received a succession of warnings from Washington that week about a Gulf hurricane, but it was the morning’s unusually high tide and opposing winds that alarmed him. The rest of Galveston was not so easily cowed. The streets flooded all the time, and the town never suffered much damage. So Galvestonians dallied until all the bridges to the mainland had fallen. As the winds turned ferocious, many beach residents who belatedly sought safety in the larger buildings downtown were impaled by flying slate shingles or shrapnel from dislodged streetcar track.

Around 6:30 p.m. a storm wave submerged the city—whose highest elevation was 8 feet above sea level—to a depth of 15 feet. According to Cline, “By 8 p.m. a number of houses had drifted up and lodged to the east and southeast of my residence, and these with the force of the waves acted as a battering ram against which it was impossible for any building to stand for any length of time, and at 8:30 p.m. my residence went down with about fifty persons who had sought it for safety, and all but eighteen were hurled into eternity. Among the lost was my wife, who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building.”

At 10:30 p.m. the storm turned toward Oklahoma, and the water in Galveston began to recede. No building had escaped unscathed. One-third of the city was destroyed, along with a sixth of its residents. At 10:00 the next morning the mayor called a meeting of an ad hoc relief committee, which ordered every able-bodied man to help with the rebuilding effort, or he wouldn’t receive any food. Disposing of the dead was the first job. Given the sheer number of them, officials decided to load the bodies by the hundreds onto barges and bury them at sea. Days later, however, they washed back ashore. Finally the city began cremating its dead, often still trapped in mounds of wreckage.

With help from $1,258,000 in donations, Galveston was self-sufficient within six months. City planners immediately set about making sure no storm would ever again wreak so much damage on their hometown. In addition to boosting the grade of the entire island with Gulf-floor sand, Galvestonians finally built the seawall Cline had once dismissed as unnecessary. When completed, it was 6 miles long and 17 feet high, plenty big enough to withstand much of the destruction of a fierce hurricane like that of 1900.

If there is any consolation to be gained from these grim stories, it is that from Galveston to San Francisco the disasters inspired local improvements and scientific and technological advances. After the Johnstown flood the Weather Bureau moved from the Army to the Department of Agriculture and began forecasting not just for the military but for the entire country. The bureau teamed up with the infant Marconi Company two years after the Galveston hurricane to radio weather warnings to ships on the ocean. The San Francisco earthquake provided the budding field of seismology with invaluable evidence, and after the Florida hurricane of 1928 the Hoover administration built a 40-foot dam in place of the earthen barrier on Lake Okeechobee.

As a result of such efforts, large casualty figures from natural disasters became increasingly rare as the twentieth century went on.