History Podcasts

The Deadliest Natural Disasters in U.S. History

The Deadliest Natural Disasters in U.S. History

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Mother Nature can be merciless. From the churning hurricanes of the Gulf Coast, to the trailer-tossing storms of Tornado Alley, to the ground-pounding quakes of California, the United States is no stranger to deadly natural disasters. Here are five of the worst natural disasters to wreak havoc on U.S. soil.

1. The Great Galveston Storm of 1900

Galveston, Texas sits on a narrow barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico with a peak elevation of 8.7 feet above sea level. In 1900, Galveston was the gem of Texas, its biggest port city, home to millionaire mansions and some of the nation’s first electric streetlights.

All of that changed on September 8, when an unnamed hurricane bearing 140-m.p.h winds slammed into the Gulf Coast, generating a 16-foot storm surge that nearly wiped the island and its 37,000 residents off the map. An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people perished in the storm, the single deadliest in U.S. history.

Among the harrowing details of the Galveston storm were trolley tracks ripped from their moorings and smashing through buildings like battering rams, a grand piano riding the crest of a six-foot wave down Broadway, and an unrelenting wind that survivors described as “a thousand little devils shrieking and whistling.”

But the greatest single tragedy belongs to St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum, where 93 children and 10 nuns took refuge in the girl’s dormitory after the boy’s was lifted off its foundation and washed away by the pounding waves. In desperation, each of the sisters bound herself with clothesline to eight to 10 children, and that’s how most of their bodies were found. Only three of the orphans survived the storm.

READ MORE: How the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 Became the Deadliest US Disaster

2. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

On April 18, 1906, the residents of San Francisco were awoken with a jolt at 5:12 am. They had just enough time to get their bearings before the real shaking began. For nearly a minute, the Northern California city of 450,000 was rocked with a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that ripped a 296-mile fissure along the San Andreas fault.

But the quake, which leveled countless buildings and homes, was only the beginning of the nightmare. Hundreds of fires burned across the city fueled by broken gas lines, and firefighters could only watch helplessly, their water supply drained by ruptured pipes. The fires raged for three days, consuming nearly 500 city blocks.

When the smoke finally cleared, city officials estimated that more than 3,000 people were killed in the earthquake and ensuing fires, more than 28,000 buildings were destroyed, and more than 200,000 San Franciscans were left homeless, forced to sleep in makeshift cottages in the city’s parks for months as the city was rebuilt from the ashes.

3. The Johnstown Flood

Tsunamis aren’t supposed to strike central Pennsylvania, but that’s exactly what it looked like when a 40-foot high, half-mile wide wall of water and debris roared down upon the Appalachian town of Johnstown in 1889. In minutes, 1,600 homes were flattened and washed away, and 2,209 people were dead, including 99 entire families.

The source of the Johnstown Flood was the failure of dam holding back 20 million tons of water contained in Lake Conemaugh, a manmade reservoir 14 miles from Johnstown in the mountains. The lake and dam were owned by South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, which included wealthy industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick as members.

The club blocked off the dam’s drainage pipes to maintain the fish population and allowed the lake to fill up dangerously high with spring rains. When the dam collapsed on May 31, the massive rush of water tore down the mountainside, picking up trees and large boulders as the wave gained terrible speed and strength.

170,000-pound locomotives in the wave’s path were shoved 4,800 feet off their tracks. Houses were ripped from their foundations. And bodies were recovered as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, more that 350 miles to the west.

READ MORE: How America's Most Powerful Men Caused America's Deadliest Flood

4. The Peshtigo Fire

The Great Chicago Fire is arguably the most famous fire in U.S. history, but a far deadlier if lesser-known blaze occurred on the very same day in neighboring Wisconsin and Michigan. The Peshtigo Fire, which consumed 1.5 million acres of tinder-dry land on October 8, 1871, was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2,500 people, more than any other fire in American history.

Drought conditions in the upper Midwest triggered a string of wildfires, including the massive one that was believed to have originated near the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. High winds fanned the flames into firestorms, tornado-like columns of fire that were able to leap natural firebreaks and even large bodies of water.

When the residents of Peshtigo heard the approaching inferno—it was reported to rumble like a freight train—many fled to the river, where they thought the flames couldn’t reach them. A local priest described the scene:

“The flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands that we kept the flames at bay.”

Elsewhere, people weren’t so lucky. A group that took refuge in a water tower were boiled to death. Some fathers, unable to get their families to safety, chose to kill themselves and their children before the flames could reach them. The firestorm was so hot that it turned sand on the Peshtigo streets to glass.

READ MORE: Why America's Deadliest Wildfire Is Largely Forgotten Today

5. Hurricane Maria

America has a long and tragic history of murderous hurricanes. The carnage of the Great Galveston Storm of 1900 is unmatched, but there’s also the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane that claimed 2,500 lives in Florida and the 1893 Sea Islands storm that drowned 2,000 people in coastal Georgia and South Carolina.

But according to new data from Harvard public health researchers, Hurricane Maria, which ripped through Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, may be one of the deadliest ever. The official death toll from the Category 4 storm is 64 people, but the scenes of devastation and stories from local hospitals hinted at a much larger toll.

By surveying 3,299 individual households across every inch of the island, researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Health discovered that the death rate in Puerto Rico during the months immediately following Hurricane Maria was 62 percent higher than the same period a year earlier.

Those “excess deaths” totaled 4,645 people, making Maria the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, claiming more American lives that 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina combined.

COVID-19 is officially omnipresent. It’s a part of every conversation, news broadcast, social media post, and internet “water cooler chat.”

As the days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months, it seems foreign to even think about what we did before we quarantined. Driving to work, going to restaurants, and watching March Madness all seem a world away now.

But before this life-altering pandemic, there have been other disasters. Hurricanes. Fires. Terrorist attacks. Floods. Dozens of different man-made and natural disasters of all flavors, wreaking havoc and claiming lives.

Because we’ve exclusively had the coronavirus under the microscope for the last few months, I thought it would be interesting to widen our focus to look at some of the other disasters our nation has known. In the name of widening the focus from our current situation, I specifically haven’t included pandemics or epidemics on this list. Wars have also been excluded.

5 of the Worst Natural Disasters in US History

Natural disasters can strike at any time, so it's important for those seeking an emergency management degree to learn from the tragedies of the past. The worst natural disasters in U.S. history had several things in common, including fear, panic and unprepared people making things worse. Here are just a few examples of how man and nature have collided in terrible ways.

1. The Peshtigo Fire

Even though it claimed between 1,500 &ndash 2,500 lives as the deadliest fire in U.S. history, the Peshtigo Fire isn't usually included in history books. Why? It happened the same day as the Great Chicago Fire: October 8, 1871. Even though Chicago's inferno killed fewer people and caused less property damage, it attracted much greater headlines, so the Peshtigo Fire was largely forgotten except by those who lived it. However, it remains one of the most fatal days in the country's history.

2. The Great Flood of 1889

Also known as the "Johnstown Flood," this disaster was the result of a dam failure after several days of heavy rainfall. 20 million tons of water burst through the structure and swept through the rural town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, resulting in more than 2,200 deaths and $463 million in damage. According to The Washington Post, witnesses said that the towering wall of water was more than 40 feet high and a half-mile wide before it struck.

3. Hurricane Maria

It's hard to believe that an ocean wave morphed into one of the deadliest disasters of the 21st century, but that's exactly what happened with Hurricane Maria. It started as a wave, strengthened into a tropical storm and underwent a process called "explosive intensification" until it ravaged the U.S. and Puerto Rico for almost a month. The end result was almost 3,000 deaths and more than $90 billion in damage across multiple countries and coastlines.

4. 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

San Francisco was absolutely ravaged by both natural and man-made disasters on April 18, 1906. Not only did a 7.9 earthquake strike the city in the early hours of the morning, but a series of fires broke out and damaged or destroyed more than 80 percent of buildings in the surrounding area. Some of the fires were the results of gas lines exploding others were accidentally set by residents and even firefighters. They were well-intentioned but under-trained. The fire chief was among the 3,000 fatalities that day.

5. The Great Galveston Hurricane

The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was the single deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, it resulted in a massive 6,000 &ndash 12,000 casualties. It damaged every single building in the city. Out of 38,000 residents, 30,000 were left homeless. It was such a catastrophic event that it turned Galveston from a thriving tourist town into an abandoned stretch of land where people were too afraid to live. It took years for the population to rebuild.

These are just a few of the worst natural disasters to strike America. For anyone considering an emergency management degree, these catastrophes can teach valuable lessons about being prepared and responding quickly when nature decides to strike.

The worst natural disasters in U.S. history

President Bush has described the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina as "one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history." Among the others: .

Forest Fire, Peshtigo, Wis., Oct. 8, 1871: Fires burned 3.8 million acres, destroyed nine towns, caused $169 million in damage and killed 1,500 people..

"Blizzard of 1888," March 11-14, 1888: The blizzard raged for 36 hours throughout northeastern United States, dumping 4 feet of snow and leaving snowdrifts that reached 40 feet. New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington were cut off for days. More than 400 deaths were reported. .

Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889: The town of Johnstown, Pa., was inundated after the earthen South Fork Dam broke and released water from a nearby lake. A wall of water 100 feet high, which traveled at 40 mph, destroyed much of the town. The death toll was more than 2,200..

Galveston Hurricane, Sept. 8, 1900: The hurricane-induced flood in Galveston, Texas, was the deadliest in U.S. history. At that time, the highest point in the city was only 8.7 feet above sea level. The hurricane brought a storm surge of more than 15 feet, which washed over Galveston Island. Some 8, 000 people died..

San Francisco Earthquake, April 18, 1906: The earthquake, which measured between magnitude 7.7 and 8.3, was followed by fires that razed more than 4 square miles of the city. At the time, 470 deaths were recorded. Today it is believed that 3,000 or more people died. .

"Tri-State Tornado," March 18, 1925: The tornado killed more than 690 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana and caused $25 million in property damage..

"Great Mississippi Flood," May 6, 1927: The Mississippi River broke from its levee system in 145 places, flooding 27,000 square miles of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Thirteen percent of the state of Arkansas was under water. The flood killed 247 people and caused more than $400 million in damage, according to officials, though some estimates put the death toll as high as 1,000..

The Worst Climate Disasters in U.S. History

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

10. U.S. Drought/Heatwave

  • Date: 2012
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $34.5 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $30.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 123
  • Most impacted area: Midwest and West

High temperatures and low moisture brought on the most severe drought the U.S. had seen in decades during the summer of 2012. Drought conditions and more than two months of heat waves were directly responsible for more than 100 deaths and billions in economic losses due to failed harvests for crops like corn and soybeans.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

9. Hurricane Ike

  • Date: September 2008
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $36.9 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $30.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 112
  • Most impacted area: Texas

After hitting Cuba as a Category 4 storm several days earlier, Hurricane Ike made landfall as a Category 2 storm near Galveston, Texas on September 13, 2008. Ike damaged or destroyed more than 75 percent of the homes in Galveston and brought widespread damage elsewhere in eastern Texas. Damage totaled $30 billion.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

8. Midwest Flooding

  • Date: Summer 1993
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $38.1 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $21.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 48
  • Most impacted area: Midwest

The Midwest experienced unusually high precipitation from rain and snow in 1992 and the first half of 1993. As a result, parts of the Upper Mississippi River were at flood levels for almost 200 days in some locations, while the Missouri River basin experienced flood levels for nearly 100 days. The ongoing floods destroyed tens of thousands of homes and inundated millions of acres of farmland.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

7. U.S. Drought/Heatwave

  • Date: Summer 1988
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $45.0 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $20.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 454
  • Most impacted area: Midwest, West, Southeast

As the worst drought the U.S. had seen since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the drought of 1988 covered nearly half of the United States at its peak, and continued as late as 1990 in some locations. The persistent hot, dry conditions led to billions of dollars in losses from crops and livestock, along with wildfires in Yellowstone National Park that burned nearly 800,000 acres.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

6. Hurricane Andrew

  • Date: August 1992
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $50.8 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $27.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 61
  • Most impacted area: Florida and Louisiana

The 1992 Atlantic hurricane season&rsquos first major storm was one of the most powerful on record. Andrew is only one of four hurricanes ever to make landfall in the U.S. as a Category 5 storm, with winds reaching nearly 174 miles per hour. The storm ripped through southern Florida before reemerging in the Gulf of Mexico and making a second landfall on the Louisiana coast several days later, causing more than $27 billion in damage.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

5. Hurricane Irma

  • Date: September 2017
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $52.5 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $50.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 97
  • Most impacted area: Florida and South Carolina

The year 2017&rsquos hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season remains the costliest on record, and Hurricane Irma is one of the major reasons why. After making landfall as a Category 4, Irma carved a path northward through the heart of Florida and into the southeastern U.S., bringing coastal flooding to Georgia and South Carolina as well. The storm&rsquos damage totaled $50 billion.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

4. Hurricane Sandy

  • Date: October 2012
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $74.8 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $65.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 159
  • Most impacted area: New York and New Jersey

At more than 900 miles in diameter, Hurricane (or Superstorm) Sandy was felt in 24 states, but Sandy is most remembered for its damage to the Mid-Atlantic region. After following a path north along the Atlantic coast, Sandy made an unusual westward turn into New York and New Jersey before merging with another storm system. Flooding and storm damage in New York City and other major East Coast metros contributed to Sandy&rsquos $65 billion in damage.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

3. Hurricane Maria

  • Date: September 2017
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $94.5 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $90.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 2,981
  • Most impacted area: Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

Another one of 2017&rsquos major hurricanes, Hurricane Maria brought catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. With the region still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Irma from two weeks prior, Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a powerful Category 4 storm. Storm surge, heavy rains, and high winds leveled neighborhoods and destroyed much of Puerto Rico&rsquos power grid, causing $90 billion in damage and nearly 3,000 deaths.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

2. Hurricane Harvey

  • Date: August 2017
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $131.3 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $125.0 billion
  • Number of deaths: 89
  • Most impacted area: Texas

The costliest of the storms from the catastrophic 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, Hurricane Harvey also holds the distinction of being the wettest tropical cyclone on record. Harvey made landfall in Texas as a Category 4 hurricane, but it was the storm&rsquos prolonged stall over Houston and the Gulf Coast that made Harvey so expensive. Over several days, Harvey dropped more than five feet of rain in some locations, causing floods that produced $125 billion in damage.

4) Galveston, Texas Hurricane

The tropical cyclone that racked Galveston, Texas is the deadliest natural disaster in US history taking the lives of an estimated 12,000 people on September 18th, 1900. The category 4 hurricane had winds blowing upwards of 145 mph killing 1 in 6 residents and utterly destroying 3,600 homes. Even though Galveston was rebuilt it was never fully restored to the glorious port it once was and it sparked an interest of focus on hurricane prevention.

Hurricane Maria was one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, according to a new estimate

A study released by the New England Journal of Medicine this week estimated that Hurricane Maria killed roughly 4,645 residents of Puerto Rico between landfall Sept. 20, 2017 and December 31 of that year.

On Friday evening, the government of Puerto Rico released for the first time official mortality figures showing at least 1,400 deaths likely attributable to the hurricane over the same period.

Either figure would make Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters to ever strike the United States, according to a tally of disasters compiled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

There's a fair amount of imprecision around each number. The NEJM figure is an extrapolation from a household survey. As such, it comes with a fairly wide margin of error: the researchers are confident that the true number of fatalities is somewhere between 793 and 8,498. They report 4,645 as the top line figure because it falls exactly within the middle of the range.

The government figures, on the other hand, are not an estimate but actual data derived from death certificates and other official sources. They show that about 1,400 more people died between September and December 2017 than during the same period in 2016.

The problem here, however, is that we don't have a precise baseline: had the hurricane not hit, in other words, would deaths at the end of the year have been higher or lower than previous years?

At any rate, it's clear that the true toll of Maria is considerably higher than the 64 previously reported by Puerto Rican authorities.

Beyond that, there are a number of different ways to define a “disaster.” Some tallies include disease outbreaks such as the 1918 flu, while others include man-made catastrophes such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (about 3,000 deaths, per FEMA) and the 1865 Sultana steamboat explosion (roughly 2,000).

For the purposes of the chart above, we've excluded both diseases and human-caused events to focus on what are typically considered “natural” disasters.

Hurricanes are well-represented on the list, taking up six out of 13 slots (if you consider that Maria is represented twice). The NEJM estimate would make Maria the fourth-deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the United States, following the 1900 Galveston hurricane and a pair of widespread heat waves in the 1980s.

According to the official government figures released yesterday, on the other hand, Maria would rate the 12th deadliest natural disaster, just behind Hurricane Katrina. As in Puerto Rico, the federal response to Katrina received widespread criticism for being sluggish and inadequate to the challenges posed by the storm.

6. (TIE) The 1839 Coringa cyclone

The Coringa cyclone made landfall at the port city of Coringa on India's Bay of Bengal on Nov. 25, 1839, whipping up a storm surge of 40 feet (12 m), according to NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory Hurricane Research Division. The hurricane's wind speeds and category are not known, as is the case for many storms that took place before the 20th century. About 20,000 ships and vessels were destroyed, along with the lives of an estimated 300,000 people.


The Great Tri-State Tornado

Date: March 18, 1925
Deaths: 695
Damage: USD 1.4 billion
Areas affected: Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana

The Great Tri-State Tornado was the deadliest one of the 12 tornadoes that hit the Midwestern and Southern U.S. on March 18, 1925. The tornado alone killed 695 people, making it worse than the second deadliest, the 1840 Great Natchez Tornado, in the history of the US.

The tornado rode for 3.5 hours on a 219-mile track, which was the longest single track to be recorded. It greatly damaged the areas of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, destroying numerous homes and buildings along its path. In all, 695 people were killed and 2,027 were injured due to the tornado. Approximately 15,000 homes were destroyed, and the tornado caused an estimated damage of USD 1.4 billion.

The 2011 Joplin Tornado

Date: May 22, 2011
Deaths: 158
Damage: USD 2.8 billion
Areas affected: Joplin, Jasper County, and Newton County

The Joplin Tornado was a massive catastrophic EF5 multiple-vortex tornado that struck the US on May 22, 2011. The tornado first developed to the east of Kansas, at 5.34 pm at EF0 intensity. It strengthened into a EF1 intensity and hit the rural areas near Joplin, Missouri.

It finally hit the southwest corner of Joplin near the Twin Hills Country Club at the intensities of EF1 and EF2. It continued to strengthen, and destroyed several homes in the city, with the intensity increasing up to EF5. The total track length of the tornado was 22.1 miles. Overall, it killed 158 people and injured 1,150 others. The tornado destroyed 6,954 homes, and damaged 875 homes. The estimated damage caused by the tornado was USD 2.8 billion. This tornado was the deadliest one to hit the US after the 1947 Glazier-Higgins-Woodward tornadoes.

"Disasters Have Histories": Teaching and Researching American Disasters

A category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph when it made landfall, Hurricane Harvey dumped over fifty inches of rain on Houston, breaking Texas’ record for annual rainfall in less than a week. Harvey’s unprecedented size forced television news to create new color categories to visually represent the scale of the storm. And reports suggest it could have the greatest economic impact of any storm in American history.[1] Just one year earlier, southern Louisiana experienced devastating flooding from an unnamed storm, which the Red Cross called the “worst natural disaster” since Superstorm Sandy.[2]

These sorts of devastating, weather-related disasters have wide-ranging effects. History, it is clear, shapes both the impact of and response to disasters. I recently sat down with Andy Horowitz and Liz Skilton, scholars whose work has focused on disasters, to talk about how history shapes both the impact of and response to disasters, and how they communicate the role of history in moments like these.

We often hear the phrase, “there is no such thing as a natural disaster.” What does that mean? How does that idea shape the way you’ve watched the recent storms and floods?

Andy Horowitz: The idea, as I construe it, is that disasters have histories. Who is in harm’s way, and the sort of harm they are in the way of, are products of human decisions and social arrangements.

To many observers, disasters can seem like they erupt out of nowhere, in a catastrophic instant, but as historians, it’s our job to place them in time and space. So when I approach events like the recent storms, I start by asking: who was in danger? When did they arrive there? Why? Almost by definition, seeing disasters as products of history makes them seem less random and less inevitable.

That’s certainly been the case for my own research on Katrina. The hurricane made landfall in 2005, but I begin my book in 1915, because that’s when people started building the houses that ultimately flooded nine decades later. Placing the storm in historical context enables me to show how federal housing policies encouraged people to move to risky places, and how the oil industry’s development in coastal wetlands made those places even more vulnerable. It also enables me to narrate the ideologies that shaped how people experienced and saw Katrina.

Liz Skilton: After Hurricane Maria, President Trump asserted that the residents of Puerto Rico had not experienced “a real catastrophe like Katrina.” These comments quickly sparked a national debate over how to define a “real catastrophe,” notably as we wrestled to contextualize a different type of disaster, the Las Vegas Shooting, which had occurred two days before Trump’s comments on Puerto Rico. The two disasters—a hurricane and shooting—brought up questions related to the juxtaposition of different types of disasters and the memory of past experiences with disasters, particularly the one that has fundamentally shaped the twenty-first-century understanding of disaster (Hurricane Katrina). When I teach my American Disasters course, I start by telling my students that historically, we talk about what constitutes a disaster based on three fundamental characteristics. First, we decide whether the disaster was sizable in terms of physical size and impact radius, economic impact in the long and short-term, and loss of human life. Second, we ask whether the disaster was of local, national, or international concern (and whether it meets federal aid standards, such as the FEMA/Stafford Act relief). And third, we determine whether the disaster was considered man-made or “natural.” This last characteristic—man-made or natural—is often the most confusing one for students to grasp once we start to unpack the varieties of meaning. Any disaster could be both man-made and natural, particularly today when anthropogenic influence permeates most situations.

Horowitz: On that last point, given what we know about how burning fossil fuels increases the frequency and severity of storms, we ought to teach modern hurricanes, in part, as events in the history of the industrial revolution.

How does a historical understanding of the environment, nature, policy, politics, race, gender, class, and ideology shape our reaction to events like Hurricane Harvey? What do you, as scholars and teachers of disaster history, do in the classroom and the community to help students and the public understand these intersections historically?

Skilton: The phrase “natural disaster,” has grown in public use over the past century. In my course, I explain how that growth reflects a change in the impression of what constitutes a disaster. One of the tools I use to do this is Google Ngram, which tracks the use of terms in millions of books over time. When we look for “natural disaster” in Google Ngram, we see that it emerges in English-text books around the 1920s and rises in popularity after the 1970s. Part of this has to do with the enactment of federal legislation defining a disaster, and the other part is directly related to cultural changes in the understanding of the environment and human role within it. By the time we get to the 2000s, Americans use the phrase “natural disaster” with ease, but have continued to debate its meaning even more following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Katrina was neither entirely “natural” nor “man-made,” and the complexity of the storm, the recovery, and its continued impact has caused us to reevaluate defining a disaster as one or the other.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria confirm this change in the common understanding of disaster. Media coverage for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma frequently focused on the impact of the anthropogenic decisions in the city of Houston that led to conditions of extreme flooding, or climate and coastal change in Miami. Meanwhile, discussion of Hurricane Maria’s effect on Puerto Rico and federal response to it has reviewed the history of U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean. As historians, I believe this shift in how we understand disaster has affected how we viewed disasters this year. Just the fact that we are connecting disasters to larger anthropogenic influence during a disaster is significant in observing how we consider our role in the natural world. The real testament to impact, however, will be whether it will result in policy revision to disaster legislation or mitigation efforts.

Horowitz: It’s our job as historians to help people understand how change happens. I start my disasters class with the idea that “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” not because it’s foundational to the field of disaster studies, but because it’s foundational to the study of the history of anything: historians assume that change doesn’t just happen, but is made.

History is the antidote to inevitability. If I started my Katrina book at the instant the levees broke, there would be no place in the story to see how things might have been different. But by giving Katrina a history, I can highlight the decisions that put people in danger. Those contingencies reveal how things could have been different in the past. They offer a map to making change in the future. It can be terrifying to recognize how the moments that we refer to as disasters are not cosmic bad luck but rather are products of human history. But it can also be empowering to know that even though the etymology of the word “disaster” refers to stars out of alignment, “The fault…is not in our stars,” as Shakespeare wrote, “But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Liz, you’ve been engaged in an oral history project related to the 2016 floods in southern Louisiana. What have you and your students begun to learn about the interactions between the past and the present?

Skilton: This past summer, I worked with a team of undergraduate and graduate students to collect oral history interviews on memories of recent disasters through a series of pop-up events called “History Harvests” in the Acadiana region of Louisiana. The project started because of my desire to measure community response to two different, but back-to-back disasters in the region—the 2015 Grand 16 Theater shooting incident and the 2016 Acadiana floods—and has since expanded. >

As we did the “Harvests,” my students were surprised, first of all, by how much people’s perception of the significance of a disaster changes with each subsequent disaster.

We’ve also found that disaster networks (and the perception of who participates in them) are evolving rapidly with social media influence. This includes the understanding of who should provide aid to a community affected by a disaster, what assistance is expected, and how quickly this aid should be available. It has inspired the creation of community volunteer groups (like the “Cajun Navy”) using social media as their primary communication platform to assist in official federal, state, and local efforts. These community efforts are largely based on past experiences with other disasters that are critical to understanding these new forms of response.

When collecting the interviews, my students were amazed at the number of disasters people remembered and the detail of which their memories form perceptions of current disasters. They all agree that while a current disaster might be a central focus of the moment, past disasters play a significant role in affecting how we perceive what is taking place, and thus they are vital to understanding response. Collecting this material now will help us study disasters in the future.

Andy, you wrote several op-eds while the Harvey and Irma disasters were unfolding to discuss elements of the 1900 Galveston hurricane and Hurricane Katrina. Why? What role do newspaper opinion pages play in teaching disaster history?

Horowitz: It’s our civic responsibility as scholars, and an extension of our role as teachers, to share what we know when it might be of use.

There were two points I thought I could most usefully make around the hurricanes this fall. The first is that though fears of looting and social disorder are common during floods—often leading to violence, as people seek to protect themselves from the marauding gangs they believe are about to beat down the door—actual looting is rare. I hoped reminding people of this fact might calm anxieties a bit and help prevent misguided, fear-inducing press coverage.

The second point I tried to make based on my research was that so much of what we often think of as the disaster is, in fact, a product of policy decisions made afterwards. Who returned to New Orleans after Katrina, for example, cannot be explained by the flood but rather by the prerogatives of recovery programs. In many ways, the defining parts of the events we will come to know as Harvey, Irma, or Maria will occur long after the storm clouds clear. So if you care about the fate of your fellow citizens, your work is far from done just because the floodwater is gone.

More broadly, I wanted to argue that we too often gather the challenges posed by rising seas, hurricanes, and the like under the banner of “climate change,” when they are not primarily climatological. The challenges are political and moral. They resemble other problems we’ve faced as a society in the past, and our successes or failures will not be measured in terms of degrees or inches, but in terms of legitimacy and justice.

What about living in southern Louisiana helps situate your own approach to teaching about these subjects?

Horowitz: Well, the fact that parts of the Tulane University campus flooded during Katrina certainly personalizes the “so what” question for my students!

In some ways, that means my charge is to help my students move back and forth between the specific and the general. Katrina happened on our campus and in our city, but also in the South, in America, and in the world. Thinking about how to narrate a story or make an argument at those different scales can be a productive challenge.

Skilton: When I moved to New Orleans in 2007 to study Katrina, I became part of a generation who migrated to the city post-storm. I documented and participated in the rebirth of the city and a decade later still call it home, even though I now teach at a state university three hours away. Post-Katrina New Orleans fundamentally shaped my scholarship and perspective on the intersection of the environment, policy, politics, race, class, gender, and ideology. I now try to expose my students to this by taking them on field excursions to sites of contested environmental change such as New Orleans, the industrial corridor or “Cancer Alley,” and even the wetlands in kayaks to see oil spill effects. I have tried to pass experiences like this on to my students to encourage them to get out into the field and be on the front lines of public discourse.

Do we run a risk of historicizing disasters too quickly? What can we learn from recent events like Hurricane Harvey, when the event is ongoing and our understandings of it are incomplete?

Skilton: Every disaster can be compared to one of the past. Understanding how it fits within the context of a region, culture, and history is vital to predicting how a current disaster will impact the population and surrounding environment. The real risk with historicizing disaster is the attempt to claim every disaster as “the worse we have ever seen,” without contextualizing what that means. This language provides no perspective except to warn of impending doom, and even then, creates impressions of a disaster that mislead response, relief efforts, and perceptions of impact, mainly when a subsequent disaster follows.

Horowitz: History is always ongoing and our understanding is always incomplete. Calls not to historicize or politicize an event are efforts to evade discussions about culpability and responsibility.

I agree that calling each disaster the “worst ever” doesn’t add much to our civic dialogue. Often, the best thing a historian can do is just the opposite: to find precedents that can help us make sense of our current predicaments. The problems we face are not new—you don’t have to get very far in the book of Genesis until you reach the history of a flood, after all. There is a vast warehouse of human experience with disaster, full of successes, failures, and lessons yet to be learned, and historians hold the key.

Watch the video: Οι μεγαλύτερες καταστροφές στην Ελλάδα (July 2022).


  1. Zulugar

    Case that your hands!

  2. Wesley

    At all I do not know, as to tell

  3. Scoville

    a very curious question

  4. Dakota

    Christmas tree sticks, a unique note

Write a message