A disaster is an unfortunate event, especially one that happens suddenly and without warning, that causes extensive damage, injury, and loss of life. While an accident is also an unexpected calamity resulting in loss or injury, the effects of a disaster are usually much more widespread.
Natural disasters are extreme environmental events, often called “acts of God.” They are caused by weather-related and geological factors that are beyond human control, and may or may not be predictable. Man-made disasters are caused by human error or carelessness, or on purpose due to acts of war or terrorism. While major catastrophes are rare, many disasters have occurred around the world throughout history.
Examples of disasters include: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunami waves, winter storms, avalanches, mudslides, flooding, flash floods, droughts, fires, explosions, mining accidents, dam breaks, sinking ships, airplane crashes, train wrecks, nuclear fallout, oil spills, spacecraft malfunctions, and terrorist attacks.
Modern news coverage may make it seem like disasters are becoming more common, but it’s not necessarily so. Today we are better prepared with protective measures like satellite and computer technology that allow scientists to predict and track events. On the other hand, development has soared in regions prone to natural disasters, bringing more people and structures into the path of destruction. People who live in such places need to be aware of the natural disasters that are likely to occur in these areas.
64 – Great Fire of Rome, July 19-24.
79 – Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroys Pompeii, August 24-26.
1212 – Great Fire of London destroyed most of the city, July 11.
1556 – 800,000 people killed in Shensi, China earthquake, January 24.
1666 – London’s Great Fire of 1666, September 2-6.
1871 – Peshtigo Firestorm roared through the woods of Wisconsin and Michigan, burning over 4 million acres, destroying 23 towns and killing 2,000 people, October 8. (This fire was actually much worse than the more famous Great Chicago Fire which occurred on the same day.)
1883 – Violent eruption of Krakatau near Indonesia wiped out 163 island villages, August 27.
1888 - Blizzard paralyzed New England for a week, March 12-14.
1889 - Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania caused by a dam burst following heavy rain, May 31.
1896 - St. Louis Tornado, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, tracks through urban Saint Louis, Missouri and East St. Louis, Illinois, May 27.
1900 - A hurricane swept over the island city of Galveston, Texas and killed an estimated 8,000 people, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, September 8-9.
1906 - Great San Francisco Earthquake, 7.9 magnitude, April 18.
1912 - The sinking of the Titanic, April 15.
1913 – Great Lakes Blizzard, a.k.a. “White Hurricane” was unusual both for its intensity and because it raged over the lakes for several days, November 7-11.
1915 - Lusitania passenger liner sunk by German submarine, May 7.
1919 - Great Boston Molasses Flood, a 20-foot wave of molasses from a factory explosion poured through the streets of Boston, knocking down buildings and drowning 21 people, January 15.
1923 – Tokyo earthquake, 8.2 magnitude, and resulting fire destroyed half of the city, killed 142,000 people and made a million people homeless, September 1.
1925 – Tri-State Tornado, the longest-lasting and most destructive single tornado in history, went on a 3˝ -hour rampage through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18.
1928 - Great Okeechobee flood and hurricane, killing at least 1,836 and as many as 3,000 people, September 16.
1937 - Hindenburg airship explosion, May 6.
1938 – New England Hurricane hit Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York City, September 20.
1950 – The “Storm of the Century” brought snow and hurricane-force winds to 22 states, November 25-27.
1964 – Alaska’s Good Friday Earthquake, 9.2 magnitude, March 27.
1974 - 148 separate tornadoes spawned by the same storm system ravaged 13 states, April 3-4.
1977 – “Blizzard of 1977” paralyzed Buffalo and surrounding areas for two weeks, January 27-February 14.
1979 – Nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, March 28.
1980 - Mount Saint Helens is the worst volcanic eruption in the U.S., May 18.
1986 - Space Shuttle “Challenger” explodes after takeoff, January 28.
1986 – Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, spreading radioactive fallout across Europe.
1988 – Forest fires in and around Yellowstone National Park burn over 1.2 million acres, August-September.
1989 – Hurricane Hugo devastated Charleston, South Carolina, September 21.
1990 – Earthquake in northern Iran kills at least 35,000, injures 100,000, and leaves 400,000 homeless, June 21.
1991 - Eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, June 15.
1992 - Hurricane “Andrew” damaged more than 100,000 homes in the Bahamas, southern Florida and Louisiana, August 22-26.
1993 - Great Blizzard of 1993 “Superstorm” battered the eastern seaboard, March 13.
1995 – Kobe, Japan earthquake killed 5,391 people and left 310,000 homeless, January 17.
2001 - Terrorists attack the U.S. Pentagon and World Trade Center buildings; United Airlines Boeing 757 crashes in Pennsylvania after being hijacked, September 11.
2003 – Space Shuttle “Columbia” broke up during re-entry, February 1.
2004 – Four major hurricanes (Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne) hit Florida within a six week period, August 13-September 26.
2004 – 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra which triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the deadliest in world history, December 26.
2005 - Hurricane Katrina, the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history, destroyed towns in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; 80% of New Orleans was flooded; over 1 million people evacuated.
Disaster! Catastrophes That Shook the World, by Richard Bonson and Richard Platt, 1997.
Disasters, by Ned Halley, 1999.
The Great International Disaster Book, by James Cornell, 1979.
Nature’s Fury: Eyewitness Reports of Natural Disasters, by Carole G. Vogel, 2000.
www.hhs.gov/disasters/index.shtml (Information on Disasters and Emergencies, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)
www.ready.gov (Information about how to prepare for disasters, from the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security.)
www.bbc.co.uk/science/hottopics/naturaldisasters (How much do you know about natural disasters? Take a quiz and find out!)
www.agu.org/sci_soc/articles/eisvink.html (Why the U.S. is becoming more vulnerable to Natural Disasters.)
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