The dictionary definition of disaster is “a sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life.” Disasters tend to be divided into categories; the most common are natural and technological, though some add the third category of man-made.
Disasters happen regularly throughout the world. Every nation on earth has experienced disasters. Some disasters result in more deaths than others, depending on location and population in the area where the disaster occurs.
If disasters are arranged in order of quantity of deceased victims, the top ten in the world do not include any that happened in the United States. However, that does not mean that the US has not had any disasters, by any means. It only means that those that have happened in the US have had fewer victims than some of the deadliest disasters in history.
Because some of the deadliest disasters occurred long ago, and because of the scope of some of the disasters, some numbers have been estimated; however, these are as close as possible with the knowledge of the area of the world at the time.
Worst Worldwide Disasters
- AD 526 – Antioch Earthquake
A disaster that affected Syria and Turkey in 526, probably took place in May. It is estimated that the earthquake rated 7.0, approximately, based on the damage that followed. Aftershocks continued for a year and a half. Immediately after the quake, fires broke out that lasted for days, spread by wind, and destroyed most of the buildings that remained standing. It is estimated that around 250,000 people lost their lives in this event. There may have been fewer if it had not happened when people had traveled to the city for the Feast of the Ascension, or Holy Thursday.
- 1138, October 11 – Aleppo Earthquake
Syria was damaged again in 1138 when a pair of earthquakes – a lesser one on the 10th followed by the severe one on the 11th – resulted in around 230,000 deaths. This was despite the warning of the first earthquake which caused many residents to leave the city.
- 1556, January 23 – Shaanxi Earthquake
China has been hit by a variety of disasters over the centuries. The earthquake that took place during the Ming dynasty damaged buildings in over 97 counties and killed up to 60 percent of the population in some of the areas. Buildings collapsed on people and the earth opened up in some areas and swallowed up people, while in other areas landslides buried them. Descriptions in Chinese history talk about mountains and rivers changing places and buildings collapsing. The total death toll is thought to be about 830,000.
- 1839, November 25 – Coringa Cyclone
A small village on the southeastern coast of India called Coringa was a thriving port city before a second cyclone decimated it. 50 years before, in 1789, a cyclone killed 20,000 of the residents, but the city continued to function. However, the 1839 cyclone brought with it a 40-foot storm surge which destroyed the port and 300,000 people. Somewhere around 20,000 boats and ships were lost in the storm, as well. The city never recovered from this disaster, though the remaining people continued living there and the village has remained small.
- 1881, October 8 – Haiphong Typhoon
Haiphong, Vietnam was impacted by a major typhoon that started near the Philippines and gained strength on its way to Vietnam. Around 300,000 were killed by the storm, and possibly more in the aftermath. Because the town relied on its port, which was destroyed, the whole area saw severe economic devastation, as well.
- 1887 – Yellow River Flood
The Yellow River in Chinatends to be likely to flood because the river is elevated and walls separate it from the plains. Because it can only leave its loose dirt on the riverbed, it eventually raises above the walls when excess water due to rain increases the level. Because the plains around the river are lower than the area, flooding spreads quickly, and the flood in 1887 covered more than 50,000 square miles of land. Somewhere around 2,000,000 people were left homeless. The people who survived the flood went on to deal with illness and limited supplies, resulting in many more deaths. It is estimated that between 900,000 and 2,000,000 people died because of this flood.
- 1920, December 16 – Haiyun Earthquake
This earthquake that devastated Haiyuan, China, was reported to reach 7.8 on the Richter scale, though current Chinese media claims it was 8.5. The entire area encompassing Haiyuan, Lijunbu, and Ganyanchi was destroyed and about 240,000 people lost their lives. Some of these were lost in the three years of aftershocks due to a very severe winter and a lack of proper shelter.
- 1931, July and August – Central China Floods, Yangtze River Flood (1-4million)
11 years later, China suffered through a series of deadly floods in the central area of the country. Over 24 inches of rain caused water levels that reached over 53 feet above the average. While it is unknown exactly how many perished in this disaster, the estimates range from 422,000 to 4,000,000, especially when including those who succumbed to famine and illness that were caused by the flooding.
- 1970, November 12 – Bhola Cyclone
Bangladesh was hit by a tropical cyclone and storm surge that formed over the Bay of Bengal. It wiped out islands, villages, and crops, and caused the death of somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people.
- 1976, July 28 – Tangshan Earthquake
China’s Tangshan, Hebei area was shaken early in the morning; the 7.6 magnitude earthquakes (two within 15 hours) and many aftershocks caused the collapse or disabling of about 85% of the buildings in Tangshan, which was a large industrial city before that point. At least 242,000 people lost their lives in this horrifying event.
- 2004, December 26 – Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami
The earthquake that centered on the edge of the Indian Ocean just off the western coast of Indonesia registered over 9 magnitude and caused several tsunami waves over 100 feet high. Coastal cities were devastated and nearly 230,000 people were killed in the surrounding 14 countries. It is also known as the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake.
- 2010, January 12 – Haiti Earthquake
Haiti experienced a 7.0 magnitude earthquake followed by 5.9 and 5.5 aftershocks (plus more in the subsequent days) that resulted in many deaths. The exact count was difficult to determine, but the estimates range from 46,000 to the official count released by the Haitian government which was 300,000. Many of the survivors lost their homes and faced the difficulty of having nowhere to go.
Read more about the history of disasters:
This covers some of the disasters listed above as well as a large variety of other disasters that happened throughout history.
History is riddled with disasters that affected families, cities, and whole civilizations. This book looks at historical disasters and how humanity was affected.