Natural disasters are a reality of life – no matter who you are or where you live, the threat of nature’s fury is there. But luckily, most people will never live through a massive disaster that causes widespread death and devastation. These incredible and terrifying events are, thankfully, rare, and the most extreme forces of nature have gone down in history books for the terror they’ve caused, and the destruction that was wreaked.
These are the worst natural disasters in American history.
1. The Galveston Hurricane
The worst natural disaster in American history is a hurricane, but not a hurricane people often think of. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 destroyed a city that was on its way to becoming a major United States port and had become a popular spot for vacationing tourists. And it was vacationers that were there on September 8th, 1900 when the United States Weather Bureau warned of the impending storm and urged people to seek higher ground. Many of them ignored the warnings, however – something that would be a fatal mistake.
The hurricane was a category 4 storm, with wind speeds of 145 miles per hour. At the time, 36,000 people were living in Galveston, then called Oleander City, which was located on a barrier island. In the days preceding the storm, however, the weather had seemed calm, lulling people into a false sense of security. So residents and tourists alike stayed put, even as the storm clouds began to roll in.
Galveston sat only eight feet above sea level at the time, and the hurricane spawned a 15-foot storm surge that quickly overwhelmed the entire island. Entire houses were ripped from their foundations, with 3,600 homes ultimately being destroyed. Bridges connecting Galveston to the mainland were likewise decimated, and telegraph lines were knocked out. The only way to notify anyone of what had happened was by ship, and when rescuers finally arrived, they found the city in ruins. Many people died during the storm, either having drowned or been crushed by debris, but others were trapped underneath the wreckage and debris that had piled up throughout the city. Rescuers could hear survivors screaming, but many of them died before they were able to be reached. So many people died, it was impossible to bury them all. At first, they were taken onto barges and dumped at sea, but the bodies quickly just washed back up on Galveston’s beaches, so people began burning the bodies instead.
It is believed that 8,000 people died in the Galveston hurricane, although the number could be as high as 12,000. More people died in this one singular storm than have died in every single tropical storm or hurricane that has struck the United States since then combined. Galveston’s residents responded by quickly rebuilding their city, as well as construction a new, stronger, seawall that has protected the city from several hurricanes since then. Residents also dredged sand to raise the city itself by another 17 feet, and raised over 2,000 buildings as well, with this being named a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2001.
But the Galveston hurricane remains the worst natural disaster in American history, causing death and devastation the likes of which have never been seen since.
2. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
One of the worst earthquakes of all time is one that most Americans are already familiar with: the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. But most people don’t know many of the details, or that the earthquake wasn’t just crippling to San Francisco, but was one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history.
San Francisco is located squarely within the San Andreas Fault, which is the sliding boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, with the city falling on the North American Plate. And at 5:12am on April 18th, 1906, the earthquake struck. While the Richter scale did not yet exist, modern estimates put the quake at a 7.8, with values possibly as high as 8.3. But first came the foreshock, which was already strong enough to be felt throughout the city. Just short of 30 seconds later, the actual quake began, which lasted for about one minute. It was so strong that it could be felt as far north as Oregon, and as far south as Los Angeles. At the time, approximately 400,000 people were living in San Francisco.
The earthquake itself was damaging enough, but things only got worse for San Francisco. The tremors destroyed the city’s water mains, which proved catastrophic – the earthquake spawned fires throughout the city, and with the destroyed water mains, firefighters were powerless to fight the fires. Over 30 fires began, due to ruptured gas mains, and it has been estimated that 90% of the damage was due to the fires, and not the earthquake itself. Over 25,000 buildings – and most of the city – were destroyed. It’s estimated that as many as 300,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents were left homeless; many of them were left living in tents in makeshift refugee camps, which some people still lived in over two years later.
Property damage at the time exceeded $400 million, and relief money was sent from around the world. It’s believed that 3,000 people died in the quake.
3. The Okeechobee Hurricane
When people think of catastrophic hurricanes to have hit the state of Florida, there are probably a few names that come to mind: Charley. Matthew. Andrew. But there was another storm, one that many people have forgotten, that caused massive damage to the state and was responsible for more deaths than Hurricane Katrina. In September of 1928, the Okeechobee Hurricane hit Florida, and it was the second deadliest storm in United States history.
The hurricane originally formed off the western coast of Africa, and before it reached Florida, it slammed into the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas, where over 1,000 people had already died. On September 17th, the hurricane hit West Palm Beach, with winds of 145 miles per hour. The people living in Palm Beach were wealthy and famous, while West Palm Beach tended to be populated by the staff – the people who served the rich and famous, who weren’t as well-off. Many of them were black migrant workers, and it was this population that was the hardest hit by the storm.
A storm surge was unleashed, with waves possibly as much as 20 feet high, and as the hurricane moved inland, the waters of Lake Okeechobee began to overflow, destroying the levee keeping the water contained. Residents had been told to evacuate, but when the hurricane did not arrive on time, many of them thought that the hurricane had change course, and returned to their homes. It was a fatal mistake, as the flooding covered hundreds of square miles, and the water was as much as 20 feet deep. Houses were completely washed away, along with some people, whose bodies were never found. The flooding did not subsist for weeks, making recovery from the storm difficult.
At least 2,500 people were killed; exact numbers are impossible to find, as many bodies weren’t recovered, but it’s believed that the number of the dead could easily top 3,000. 75% of the victims were migrant workers, and while the white victims were given proper burials, many of the black victims were thrown into mass graves and burned on funeral pyres. Many of the bodies decomposed were also too decomposed for proper identification, and as the bodies rotted, they became a public health hazard. The economic damage was massive, too – in 1928, the property damage was estimated to be about $25 million. Today, it easily would have been in the billions. And yet this hurricane has become mostly forgotten in history, overshadowed by other storms and other disasters, its victims forever lost to time.
4. The Johnstown Flood
On May 31, 1889 in Pennsylvania, a catastrophic flood almost wiped a city off the map and caused the deaths of thousands of people.
Johnstown was a wealthy and growing city, bolstered by the industrial community and located in a valley in the Allegheny Mountains where the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh rivers joined together to form Conemaugh River. It also wasn’t far from Lake Conemaugh, a reservoir that had been turned into a recreational lake, owned and operated by the prestigious South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. Johnstown’s location meant that the area was no stranger to floods, and Lake Conemaugh was kept in place by the South Fork Dam, built in 1881… but less than 10 years later, the dam was already in urgent need of repairs and some in Johnstown had begun to voice concerns over the dam’s integrity. Still, because residents were used to floods, many of them did not take the danger they were in seriously until it was too late.
A storm struck, bringing as many as 10 inches of rainfall to the area in less than 24 hours. Club officials tried desperately to reinforce the dam, and on the morning of the 31st, they noticed that the waters of Lake Conemaugh had drastically risen and were about to crest the dam. Elias Unger, president of the club, assembled a group of men to try to unclog the spillway, while others tried digging a ditch to relieve the pressure in the lake. Still others tried piling more mud and rocks on top of the dam to prevent the swollen lake from spilling over. Those efforts were all in vain; Unger eventually ordered the men to fall back, and sent messengers into the valley to tell residents to evacuate. Many of them ignored the order, though, and simply moved into the second story of their homes to wait out the flood. They had no idea what was coming.
At approximately 3:00, the dam completely collapsed, unleashing 20 million tons of water. The town of South Fork was first to be hit, but it was on high ground, and many of the residents were able to escape death by running into nearby hills. Four people died, and many houses were destroyed or washed away. As the water washed through more towns, it picked up debris – houses, animals, railroad cars, barns, barbed wire and even people – and not long after 4:00, only about an hour after the dam had collapsed, Johnstown was destroyed. The debris-filled water was almost 60 feet high and half a mile wide, and was traveling at an incredible 40 miles per hour. Residents of Johnstown were caught completely by surprise, and many of them were crushed by the debris in the water. Others became entangled in barbed wire, from the wire factory upstream in Woodvale, and drowned. When the flood hit the Stone Bridge, which carried the Pennsylvania Railroad across the Conemaugh River, the disaster only got worse: the debris piled almost 40 feet high and then caught fire. Many of the people who had survived died in the blaze, which went on for three days. It would take three months for workers to completely clear the bridge of debris.
All together, 2,209 people died from the flood. Clara Barton was one of the first people to arrive, bringing the American Red Cross with her, and they constructed shelters for survivors, most of whom had their homes destroyed. Many people blamed the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club for the disaster, as the dam – which the club owned – had not been properly maintained. None of the survivors were ever successful in attempting to sue the club, however. Support for the flood victims came from around the world, with aid coming from 18 foreign countries. The flood is said to have caused over $17 million worth of damage.
5. Hurricane Katrina
By now, the name Katrina is notorious to virtually all Americans. The category three hurricane was utterly devastating, becoming the most expensive natural disaster in United States history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Katrina cost an estimated $108 billion in damages.But how did such a relatively minor storm cause so much damage? After all, it was only a category three hurricane… but then, Katrina was no regular hurricane.
Originally, Katrina was a very minor category one hurricane, striking south Florida and causing small amounts of damage. Two people were killed, but the storm weakened to a tropical storm, and the threat appeared to be over. But then, Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico and stalled, where it quickly began to regain strength. The tropical storm grew into a category five hurricane, and then eventually weakened to a category three before making landfall over Louisiana and Mississippi. Katrina was also a massive hurricane, stretching an incredible 400 miles across, and held sustained winds between 100 and 140 miles per hour. While Mississippi and other gulf states were at risk, New Orleans was in the most danger: much of the city is below sea level, with a system of levees and sea walls built to keep the city safe from flooding. Some of the levees were sturdy enough to withstand the storm, but others were not. Still, officials had no idea that the levees would actually collapse and fail completely. Bureaucratic failings among local government leaders only made things worse; then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin waited to issue a mandatory evacuation order until the day before Katrina was due to hit, and by then, it was too late – airlines had removed their planes from the area, Amtrak trains had left, and school buses that could have been used to help people escape were left untouched. Nagin directed people to the New Orleans Superdome, which was not designed to withstand the forces of a major hurricane.
When the storm surge hit, some 80% of New Orleans ended up under water. People who had decided to try to ride out the storm ended up climbing onto their rooftops, awaiting rescue by the National Guard. Much of the city’s population already lived in poverty; now, thanks to Katrina, many of them were left homeless. According to the NOAA, it was one of the largest displacements since the Great Depression, with over one million people forced to leave their homes. While it’s not known exactly how many people perished in the storm, it’s widely accepted that approximately 1,800 innocent people died. Since then, the levees in New Orleans have been rebuilt, and the city of New Orleans has worked to make emergency and evacuation information easier to access. Still, the city may never be completely the same. Much of the city has been rebuilt, but entire neighborhoods are still gone, washed away by the storm.
6. The Peshtigo Fire
Most people are familiar with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed hundreds of people and burned over three miles. But on the exact same day, another fire started, which was doomed to be forgotten by many Americans, thanks to the Chicago Fire – but this other fire was far worse, killing more people and holding the record for the deadliest wildfire in recorded history.
The Peshtigo Wildfire started after Wisconsin had been suffering an unusually hot, dry summer. Drought had set in. Meanwhile, people had been setting small fires to clear land for farming and construction, a common practice at the time. But when a cold front moved in, the winds that came with it turned the small fires into a giant firestorm – a fire so large and so destructive that it is able to create and maintain its own wind system. The fire became a column that resembled a tornado of flames, reportedly even jumping over the water at Green Bay. The flames and winds generated by the firestorm were strong enough to throw houses into the air. The flames reached 200 feet high, and were so hot – 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – that trees exploded.
The fire burned in multiple towns and cities, but Peshtigo was by far the hardest hit, with 800 lives lost and the entire city destroyed. People tried to survive by throwing themselves in the Peshtigo River, which saved them from the flames, but they still died, either from drowning or from hypothermia. Three people went into a water tank in an attempt to escape the fire, only to boil to death. Other villages and towns were devastated; one, Sugar Bush, saw every single resident killed.
Incredibly, one group of people miraculously were spared. Sister Adele Brise and the people with her were at the Chapel at Robinsonville (now Champion). The people there – nuns, farmers, women, children – were completely surrounded by the flames. They took refuge in the chapel, with Sister Adele leading a procession begging the Virgin Mary for protection. They also prayed the rosary, and hoped to be spared… and they were. The chapel was left completely untouched, and is now known as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.
While the exact number of deaths is not known, at least 1,500 people died, with the number rising to as many as 2,500. Over 1.5 million acres were burned. Far fewer people died in Chicago, but as a larger city with better communication, the Chicago Fire went down in American history, while the Peshtigo Fire has largely been forgotten.
7. The Tri-State Tornado
On March 18th, 1925, the deadliest tornado in United States history struck, and hundreds of people perished. That day, a major outbreak of tornadoes occurred, killing thousands of people, but one tornado in particular was especially deadly.
The tornado started in Ellington, Missouri, and to this day, it holds numerous records. It rode a straight path across three states for over 200 miles, devastating entire towns in Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois, giving it the longest tornado track in the world. The tornado was on the ground for over three hours, giving it the longest duration in tornado history, and the wind speed was truly tremendous, clocking in at 300 miles per hour, making it an F5 on the Fujita scale. The tornado was also reportedly a mile wide.
It started early that afternoon, with a thunderstorm forming over Missouri. Almost no one knew what was coming – and once it hit, many people still didn’t know exactly what had happened. Instead of looking like the stereotypical funnel cloud, people instead saw a black wall bearing down on them, and there were no tornado warnings at the time to let people know what was coming. Witnesses said they heard roaring, and saw debris flying in the air. Entire houses and buildings were tossed along on the ground as if they were weightless. And many of the casualties were women and children, as several of the devastated towns were mining towns. The men were in the mines, and emerged to find their homes in ruin and their families destroyed.
All together, 695 people were killed, with thousands more injured. It’s the deadliest tornado in United States history, and the second deadliest tornado in the entire world.
8. The Iroquois Theater Fire
In late 1903, the Iroquois Theater opened in Chicago. The theater was notable for its luxury, designed by architect Benjamin Marshall, and was said to be “fireproof”, with Chicago building commissioner George Williams and fire inspector Ed Laughlin boasting of its safety, thanks especially to the 30 exits, which included 27 double doors. However, not everyone thought the theater was immune from the threat of fire – others noticed that there were numerous risks, including no fire alarms, sprinkler systems, and the abundance of wood trim. The theater didn’t even have any water connections, but these concerns were brushed off.
On December 30, 1903, a matinee performance of Mr. Blue Beard was playing, starring famed actor Eddie Foy. Every one of the theater’s 1,602 seats were sold out, but hundreds more tickets were sold for “standing room” areas. There were as many as 2,200 patrons in the theater, many of whom were women and children, and the theater was so crowded that people were sitting in the aisles. This would prove to be especially deadly. In addition to the over-crowding, 27 of the theater’s 30 exists were locked, and many of the stage hands had left the theater during the performance. Not long after the second act had begun, the fire started.
It appeared that an arc lamp had sparked a fire backstage, igniting a muslin curtain. A stage hand tried to stop the fire by dropping Kilfyre canisters, but they were useless against the blaze. There was an asbestos curtain that could be lowered to prevent the fire from spreading, but it wouldn’t come down. While most of the actors fled the stage, Foy remained behind, urging patrons not to panic. But as the fire raced up the drapery and above the stage, burning scenery began raining down onto the stage. An opened backstage door, from performers and stage hands leaving, allowed wind to rush in and feed the fire, and creating a fireball that incinerated everything in the upper theater levels – including patrons still trapped in those seats, thanks to iron grates barring the stairways.
Other theater patrons were desperately trying to escape the fiery inferno, but many of the fire exists were hidden. Most of them were locked, so when they were eventually found, the people couldn’t escape anyway. Many people died after getting trapped in dead ends, or while trying to open windows that looked like doors. Other patrons were killed when they were trampled to death. Still more died when they escaped out of fire escapes, only to find them unfinished, and either fell or jumped to their deaths.
Later, when authorities were finally able to enter the theater, they found bodies piled ten high. The theater was silent. 575 people died that day, and 30 more died in the weeks to follow of their injuries, with over 600 people dying altogether. It was the deadliest single-building fire in American history, and is responsible for the toughening of safety standards in buildings around the country.