5 of the Worst Natural Disasters in US History

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Five of the Deadliest Disasters to Strike the U.S.

  • The Peshtigo Fire
  • The Great Flood of 1889
  • Hurricane Maria
  • 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
  • The Great Galveston Hurricane

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.

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1. The Peshtigo Fire

Even though it claimed between 1,500 – 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 – 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.