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Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters

June 2024
21min read
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. In three and a half hours the storm had killed 695 people in 19 communities, injured 2,027 more, and caused $16.5 million in property damage, including 15,000 demolished homes. In the aftermath, devastated survivors found an uncanny preview of the sort of images that would dominate news from Europe in 15 years. “Scenes of suffering and horror marked the storm,” reported the Post-Dispatch . “Throughout the night relief workers and ambulances endeavored to make their way through the streets strewn with wreckage, fallen telegraph poles and wires and burning embers. The only light afforded was that of the burning area.”

9. San Francisco Earthquake, 1906, estimated 700 dead.

Californians live with a mixture of nebulous anxiety and denial about the next Big One, and the template for their nightmares was cut in 1906. The earthquake along the San Andreas fault a century ago—which registered on seismographs in Germany—still reverberates in the American consciousness as the benchmark against which all other tremors are measured. And though the quake jarred residents from Oregon to Los Angeles and from the coast to Nevada, it was near the epicenter in San Francisco that it did the most damage and took the most lives.

The San Francisco fires burned for four days.

At 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a foreshock startled the sleeping West Coast, followed 25 seconds later by violent shaking that lasted from 45 to 60 seconds and split the earth for 290 miles. In some spots the ground was offset as much as 20 feet, and fences that were straight the night before suddenly zigzagged. “The noise [was] deafening; the crash of dishes, falling pictures, the rattle of the flat tin roof, bookcases being overturned, the piano hurled across the parlor, the groaning and straining of the building itself, broken glass and falling plaster, made such a roar that no one noise could be distinguished,” remembered one San Franciscan. “I never expected to come out alive… . Stand in front of your clock and count off forty-eight seconds, and imagine this scene to have continued for that length of time, and you can get some idea of what one could suffer during that period.”

The devastation—which San Franciscans had not begun to see the worst of in those 48 seconds—went on for a full four days. The quake ruptured gas lines, igniting 52 fires around the city. The water mains burst too, so the fire department had nothing to fight the blazes with. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tenement dwellers, trapped when their buildings collapsed, were killed by the flames before they could be rescued. (Although the official death toll was well under a thousand, recent studies have suggested it ran as high as 3,000.) After the mayor called in the military, the Army dynamited buildings to prevent the spread of fire, but to little avail. By April 22, 4.7 square miles of the city had burned, leaving 250,000 people stranded in camps around the ruins. In the fall the city built shacks in the park for employed families, but it would be months before everyone had a home again.

Among the homeless were the residents of Chinatown, which, to a building, had burned to the ground. Nativist businessmen celebrated the opportunity to develop the coveted real estate into a shopping district. But, with the Chinese segregated in their own refugee camp on Van Ness Avenue, others began to worry that they would put down roots in their new, fashionable neighborhood. So officials shuttled the Chinese around from location to location—as far away as Oakland—until San Francisco realized it needed to keep their tax dollars and they were finally allowed to rebuild on the original Chinatown.

8. Great New England Hurricane, 1938, 720 dead.

The first signs came from 5,000 miles away in the Sahara desert. On September 4 a French meteorologist at Blima Oasis noticed strong winds blowing toward the Atlantic. Two weeks later ships at sea were radioing the mainland about a fierce tropical storm headed its way. But when the eye bypassed Florida to arc north, forecasters at the National Weather Bureau assumed it would follow the usual course away from the coast.

1938: Winds reached 186 miles per hour.

Instead it headed straight for America’s industrial center at 60 mph. When the eye made landfall on Long Island, New York, at 2:30 p.m. on September 21, 1938, with a force detected by seismographs in Alaska, it was 50 miles wide and circled by 100-mph winds. It conspired with seasonal high tides and ground already drenched with rain to cause $300 million of damage in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. With the highest wind speeds ever recorded at the time—186 mph in Milton, Massachusetts—the hurricane knocked over trees, houses, church steeples, and train trestles. Even so, water killed most of the storm’s victims. A huge windborne wave dumped almost 14 feet onto the Providence business district in minutes. “It was your worst nightmare coming true,” one survivor said. “I think many people have had through their years the nightmare of the ocean coming up, and they’re trying to get away from it, and they can’t get away from it. And this was something you’re seeing right in front of your eyes.”

Once the storm had swept into Canada and died out near the Arctic Circle that night, weary survivors, many of whom had stayed afloat by clutching debris, greeted dawn in a daze. A Mystic, Connecticut, resident recalled: “The next morning, everywhere I went, I saw faces full of misery and despair, as people who had barely been hanging on and trying to get along the best they could surveyed incalculable damage to their properties. 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. 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. 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. 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. For a people who believed technology was the road to progress, weather must have seemed like the last frontier. As Erik Larson writes in Isaac’s Storm , a book about the Galveston hurricane, “There was talk even of controlling the weather—of subduing hail with cannon blasts and igniting forest fires to bring rain. In this new age, nature itself seemed no great obstacle.” But no matter how confident we may be with our machines, perhaps it takes a storm like Katrina to remind us we cannot yet—and will probably never—control the weather. Instead, technology has allowed us to forge an uneasy truce with nature, giving us just enough time to get out of its way.

Christine Gibson is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.

How the Hurricane Got Its Name

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