Disasters include man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks, technological disasters such as power outages and industrial or chemical accidents, and natural disasters such as tornadoes and floods. All of these have the potential to cause large amounts of damage to property as well as severe injuries or death to the people involved or in the area.
While disasters in the United States have not resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, thankfully – or even tens of thousands in most cases – there have still been some disasters that had tremendous consequences. The disasters listed below are arranged by date rather than damage or deaths.
1865, April 27 – Shipwreck of Sultana
The Civil War had just ended. Union soldiers, released from their prisons in Confederate territory, were eager to return home. Steamboat owner James Cass Mason was bribed by an officer from Vicksburg to carry a large group of released prisoners, at least partly because the government was offering money for the transport – just over $2 per soldier and about three times that for each officer. The officer arranged for a kickback, and Mason agreed.
The steamboat’s capacity, legally, was 376 passengers. The captain packed in over 2,100 people, of which 1,960 were released prisoners.
The same captain had approved a repair on a damaged boiler that was insufficient. It needed a seam cut out and replaced – which would take time – and the captain did not want to miss the prisoner transportation. The captain and his engineer had the mechanic cover the seam rather than repairing it properly.
The boiler exploded a few miles up the Mississippi, causing two other boilers to explode, as well.
Because the ship had so exceeded its capacity, there were soldiers packed in near the boilers. These men were killed by shrapnel and boiling water as the middle of the steamboat blew up. Fire from the explosion caused the demise of many others, and the total estimate of lives lost was 1,800 – about 300 more than died in the Titanic’s tragic calamity.
1871, October 8 – Peshtigo Fire
The Chicago fire is well known, but the Peshtigo fire, which happened the same day, had much less recognition. The Peshtigo fire ravaged over a million acres of Wisconsin and some parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Somewhere between 1,500-2,500 people died in the fires, which started from a dangerous combination of small fires for clearing land and strong winds that spread them quickly, resulting in a firestorm. It is uncertain how many people were lost because the records were destroyed in the flames. Some who survived did so by submerging themselves in the river or other water sources; however, some did not survive this method of attempted protection, as the water was very cold, and some died of hypothermia and others drowned.
1889, May 31 – Johnstown Flood
Known in the Johnstown area as the Great Flood of 1889, the flood was caused by the failing of a dam – the South Fork Dam – after several days of excessive rain. The dam was a part of a canal system that spanned the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; it was no longer in general use and had been converted into a lake resort for wealthy people. The dam suffered leaks and was patched, but the leaks and the fact that the drainage tubes and valves had been removed, meant that the dam was weakened and could not be relieved when the excess water built up behind it.
The catastrophic failure resulted in a river that rivaled the Mississippi temporarily, with over 14 million cubic meters (over 494 million cubic feet) of water spilling into the surrounding land. This caused about $17 million of damage, which is equivalent to nearly $500 million in 2020, and killed over 2,200 people.
1900, September 18 – Hurricane in Galveston, Texas
This deadly hurricane hit the coast of Texas after beginning as a tropical cyclone. It gained strength and made landfall as a Category 4 with winds up to 145 mph, sustained up to a full minute. This also resulted in waves of up to 12 feet, which destroyed many coastal buildings and damaged nearly every building in Galveston. Over 3,500 of these buildings were homes, which resulted in over a quarter of the population becoming homeless. The storm traveled through the United States to Iowa and across to New England, leaving between 6,000-12,000 people dead in its wake.
1906, April 18 – San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
Because there was no magnitude scale, it is difficult to know the exact number that the San Francisco quake would have met, but it is guessed it was between 7.7 and 8.3, due to the damage caused. The earthquake was due to movement of the San Andreas Fault, and the quakes covered nearly 300 miles. From Oregon to Los Angeles, and from the coast to mid-Nevada, there was shaking and damage. There were deaths in San Francisco, of course, but also throughout the area, totaling somewhere between 700 to over 3000. The damage caused around 300,000 people to be homeless – almost three-quarters of the population.
1928, September 6-21 – Okeechobee Hurricane
Also called the San Felipe Segundo hurricane, this was one of the deadliest hurricanes that has ever hit the United States. It started off the coast of Africa as a tropical depression but strengthened as it crossed the ocean. By the time it reached Guadeloupe, it had become a Category 4; it resulted in much damage in the area and killed 1,200 of the people of Guadeloupe before moving on, building to a Category 5 before hitting Puerto Rico, where it destroyed over 24,000 houses and damaged nearly 200,000. Over half a million people were left homeless, and 312 people were killed as it crossed the island.
It declined slightly back to a Category 4 when it hit the Bahamas and killed 18 more people and proceeded to make landfall in Florida, near West Palm Beach, with winds up to 145 mph. It destroyed over 1,700 houses and flooded much of the central part of the state. 2,500 or more people were drowned, and the storm caused around $25 million in damage across central Florida. It finally fell to Category 1 but still continued on into South Carolina.
The total loss of life reached 4,112 or more during the course of its travels.
1941, December 7 – Pearl Harbor
Most people have heard of the military strike that kicked off the United States’ involvement in World War II. The Japanese struck in two waves. The first was seen on radar, but those who saw it thought that it was Air Force bombers coming in from the contiguous US. These 183 planes were in three groups that dropped armor piercing bombs and torpedoes. They also shot down several U.S. planes. One of these attempted to warn the rest of the military but it was incoherent. This first wave destroyed several of the battleships as well as many of the other ships and aircraft.
The second wave was made up of 171 planes that bombed more of the areas that had military.
Both waves of attack took a total of about an hour and a half leaving more than 2,000 sailors, 200 soldiers and airmen, 100 marines, and 60 civilians dead and over 1,100 wounded.
1989, March 24 – Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Prince William Sound, about a mile and a half from Tatitilek, Alaska, is the home of the Bligh Reef, which was struck by the Exxon Valdez oil tanker. This resulted in a spill of over 10 million US gallons of crude oil. Because the Sound is difficult to access, the spill was worse than it might have been in a more accessible location, as cleanup efforts were complicated. Much of the wildlife in the area – ranging from sea creatures and fish to birds – were negatively affected by the spilled oil.
It was determined that the third mate, who was at the helm, was not able to watch the radar (which was broken); the radar would have warned him to turn the ship and miss the reef if it had been working properly.
Less than 10% of the oil spill was recovered. Studies have continued to monitor the effects, and over 30 years later, there are still areas of concern.
2001, September 11 – World Trade Center
There are some events that are unforgettable, and this is definitely one of them. The first plane hit the North Tower and the second was watched on live television by many people who were already shocked at the results of the first one. Many people were trapped above the impact locations and many more were unable to get out of the buildings before they collapsed.
Along with the towers, a nearby hotel was also destroyed, and other buildings were damaged. Nearly 3,000 people perished in the devastation.
2005, August 23-31 – Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Hurricane Katrina began as a tropical depression near the Bahamas. It increased in strength as it moved west and crossed Florida as a Category 1 hurricane, dropping rain through 70 mph winds. It gained more strength as it moved over the Gulf of Mexico and reached New Orleans as a Category 4 and bringing a 26-foot high storm surge with it that mostly flattened the coastal areas of Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi.
Because much of New Orleans is lower than sea level, the city flooded quickly even before the storm arrived. Even though over a million people left the city, thousands of people were still in New Orleans as the water rose and 80% of the city was underwater by the time to storm ended. The flooding brought in bacteria and made drinkable water scarce, resulting in many people becoming ill. The total damage was over $125 billion, and the death toll was between 1,245-1836.
2017, September 16-October 2 – Hurricane Maria (Puerto Rico)
A Category 5 hurricane destroyed a large portion of Puerto Rico and killed over 3,000 people during the event and over the next several months. Even though it hit Dominica first, it weakened only slightly on its way through. It resulted in much flooding of Puerto Rico and much damage, as well as power outages that lasted until June 2018.
There are many other disasters that have affected the United States. These are some of the most notable, but the country has survived a variety of other tragedies, which should bring hope to those who find themselves facing disaster.