Disasters!

August 2, 2007

Popular Mechanics features the “Ten Worst Disasters of the Century,” showing how Americans fought back after natural disasters in — roughly — the 20th century.

It’s an odd century used — it leaves out the Galveston, Texas, hurricane disaster of 1900, but it includes Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (maybe it would more accurately be titled “disasters of the last 100 years”). The list is limited to natural disasters, so the Texas City harbor disaster of 1947 isn’t even considered, and the New London, Texas, school explosion doesn’t make the list. Those are quibbles; Texas teachers, and others, can supplement the list to accommodate other local, national and man-made disasters.

The Dust Bowl, which I would argue was greater than any of the other disasters listed, is also left off — too long a disaster?

The Popular Mechanics list is still a treasure trove for geography and history teachers. You might want to go out today to find the magazine at a newsstand, and pick up a copy or two. Throughout this post I sprinkled several links to the website of Popular Mechanics.

Here is the Popular Mechanics list of top 10 natural disasters, in chronological order:

1. 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

2. The Big Burn of 1910

3. 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic

4. Tri-state tornado of 1925 (one tornado across Missouri, southern Illinois and Indiana)

5. The New England Hurricane of 1938

6. The Great Alaskan Earthquake and Tsunami of 1964

7. 1974 Super Tornado Outbreak

8. Mt. St. Helens Eruption, 1980

9. 1993 Storm of the Century (snow)

10. Hurricane Katrina, 2005

There you have ten disasters of the 100 years between 1905 and 2005. For a geography or history class, that could be ten days of study — a map each day, a history timeline each day featuring especially who was president at the time (and how the president reacted), a story of geology or meteorology or public health each day. At the end of a ten-day unit the class could have made ten different maps covering most of the U.S. but Hawaii, covering the technology developments of the 20th century, especially the development of radio, air travel, and space technology (weather satellites), and covering the development of human institutions to cope with disasters and prevent future disaster, especially communication, transporation, medical care, banking and other investments (the rise of the Bank of America from the San Francisco Earthquake is a great little piece of history all by itself), and government.

This is not the curriculum most of the state testing authorities envision. Students will remember the geography, history and technology of these ten days with a lot more clarity and depth than most other units a teacher might cover.

Alternatively, these could be ten Disaster Fridays, reinforcing geography and history in particular. I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface — how do you use disasters, especially these ten, in your classroom now? Tell us about it in the comments, please.

Other disasters?

No rule says you have to stick with ten, or that you need to stick with the 20th century, or with natural disasters. Here are several other disasters that you may want to include in your curricula, again in chronological order:

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (October 8), which every school kid ought to know about; coupled with the fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, the same night, which was the deadliest fire in American history; news was slow to get out because nearly every person in Peshtigo died, and the town was literally burned off the map.

The blizzards of 1888 — the Schoolhouse Blizzard of January 12, which killed more than 200, mostly school students, and the Great Blizzard of 1888 which paralyzed much of the nation a couple of months later, from March 12 to March 14.

The Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889 — a disaster seriously compounded by the folly of men and a leaky dam.  2,200 dead.

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, memorialized in the best-selling history Isaac’s Storm. At least 8,000 people died in Galveston, Texas’s largest city — and maybe as many as 15,000. There were too many bodies to count. Galveston invented a new form of government to help recover from the storm, the city commission style of government, which has been adopted widely throughout the U.S. Another large hurricane struck Galveston in 1915, killing 235 people — but it was so small in comparison, it is usually forgotten.

The 1909 Cherry Mine Fire (Bureau County, Illinois) — 259 men and boys died in a coal mine fire.

Dawson, New Mexico, Mine Disaster, October 22, 1913. 263 dead.

The Sinking of the Steamer Eastland on Lake Michigan, July 24, 1915. 840 people died.

The Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, which featured walls of hot molasses 35 feet high careening through the streets of Boston — 21 died.

The Tulsa Riot, 1921 — a race riot that killed 300 people and destroyed the African American “Wall Street.”

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which shook the social and civic foundations of riverside cities and towns.

The Dust Bowl, 1931-1939

The Ohio River Flood of 1937, which killed over 200 and pushed a million people out of their homes.

The New London, Texas, School Explosion, March 18, 1937.  In Texas’s richest school district, a gas pipeline heated the building for free.  In the era before odorfactants were added to natural gas to alert people of leaks, no one suspected the leak.  Nearly 300 died in the explosion, mostly children.

The 1946 Aleutian Islands Earthquake and Tsunami, and the April Fools Tsunami in Hawaii. An earthquake registering 7.8 struck the Aleutian Islands in far western Alaska. Six people died there. 159 people died in Hawaii when the resulting tsunami struck several hours later — the death toll perhaps increased because many people thought the warnings of a coming wave to be an April Fool’s prank.

The Texas City Explosion, 1947

The Montana-Yellowstone Earthquake, 1959, a 7.3 shaker which killed 28 people and created a new lake, Quake Lake, on the Madison River.

The Watts Riots, August 1965.

The Detroit and Newark Riots, 1967. Yes, it was “the Summer of Love.” Still, there were 164 “civil disorders” (riots) in 128 different U.S. cities. Detroit and Newark were the worst.

The Yellowstone Fires, 1988.

The Great Flood of 1993 (Mississippi River).

The 1997 Red River Flood (North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada).

Good heavens. That’s a depressing list. Still, I wonder — have I left anything off? Tell me in the comments, if you see something missing.

Other sources:


When things get tough, the patriotic listen to Barbara Jordan

August 2, 2007

Whose voice do you hear, really, when you read material that is supposed to be spoken by God? Morgan Freeman is a popular choice — he’s played God at least twice now, racing George Burns for the title of having played God most often in a movie. James Earl Jones?

Statue of Barbara Jordan at the Austin, Texas, Airport

For substance as well as tone, I nominate Barbara Jordan’s as the voice you should hear.

I’m not alone. Bill Moyers famously said:

When Max Sherman called me to tell me that Barbara was dying and wanted me to speak at this service, I had been reading a story in that morning’s New York Times about the discovery of forty billion new galaxies deep in the inner sanctum of the universe. Forty billion new galaxies to go with the ten billion we already knew about. As I put the phone down, I thought: it will take an infinite cosmic vista to accommodate a soul this great. The universe has been getting ready for her.

Now, at last, she has an amplifying system equal to that voice. As we gather in her memory, I can imagine the cadences of her eloquence echoing at the speed of light past orbiting planets and pulsars, past black holes and white dwarfs and hundreds of millions of sun-like stars, until the whole cosmic spectrum stretching out to the far fringes of space towards the very origins of time resonates to her presence.

Virgotext carried a series of posts earlier in the year, commemorating what would have been Jordan’s 71st birthday on February 21. (Virgotext also pointed me to the Moyers quote, above.)

Now, when the nation seriously ponders impeachment of a president, for the third time in just over a generation, Ms. Jordan’s words have more salience, urgency, and wisdom. It’s a good time to revisit Barbara Jordan’s wisdom, in the series of posts at Virgotext.

“There is no president of the United States that can veto that decision.”

“My faith in the Constitution is whole.”

“We know the nature of Impeachment. We’ve been talking about it a while now.”

“Indignation so great as to overgrow party interests.”

And finally:

The rest of the hearing remarks are all here. It’s a longer clip than the others but honestly, there is not a good place to cut it.

This is Barbara Jordan on the killing floor.

This was a woman who understands history, who illustrates time and again that we are, with every action, with every syllable, cutting the past away from the present.

She never mentions Nixon by name. There is the Constitution. There is the office of the Presidency. But Richard Nixon the president has already ceased to exist. By the time she finishes speaking, he is history.

“A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”

Also see, and hear:

Virgotext’s collection of Barbara Jordan stories and quotes is an excellent source for students on Watergate, impeachment, great oratory, and Barbara Jordan herself. Bookmark that site.

Barbara Jordan, in a pensive moment, in a House Committee room

Rep. Barbara Jordan sitting calmly among tension, at a House Committee meeting (probably House Judiciary Committee in 1974).


%d bloggers like this: