Disasters!


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:

7 Responses to Disasters!

  1. […] “Disasters!” from American history that should be available in U.S. history curricula […]

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  2. […] your list of Utah mine disasters When I put together the addendum list of disasters, to append to the Popular Science list of ten worst natural disasters in …., I found it difficult to make a natural cutoff of mine disasters. From growing up in Utah I […]

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    I haven’t even finished Guns, Germs and Steel, and I don’t own a copy of Collapse. You’re way ahead of me in the getting-read-the-stuff-we-oughtta-read.

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  4. jd2718 says:

    I should have figured you’d read it. Am following up with Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.” Finished the chapter on the Anasazi on the airplane back from vacation. It’s a horrible theme they have in common – in the wet years people figure the dry years were just an aberration.

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  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Egan’s book is a great read — I had it with me traveling through Dalhart and XIT territory earlier this summer. Amazing and horrific, yes.

    Plus, not much of that makes it into Texas history books. Real history is almost always better than the stuff ladled out, pabulum-like, in school texts. Were I teaching Texas history again, I’d be inclined to use Egan’s book as the text. I wrote about it earlier, here: Egan’s Dust Bowl book wins National Book Award.

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  6. jd2718 says:

    I just read Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. He tells the story of the Dust Bowl, weaving in the stories of a handful of families, based on the accounts of people who stayed, concentrating on the Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle (which he calls No Mans Land) and Baca County in southeast Colorado, and goes back to how the settling the of the southern high plains and before.

    Anyhow, Black Sunday in April 1935 alone would qualify. I ‘learned’ about the Dust Bowl in school, but I really knew very little. Static! Did you know about the problems with static? Barbed wire fences glowing blue? Cars shorting out, or dragging chains to ground themselves? People nearly knocked over by the jolt from a handshake? Amazing. Horrific.

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  7. Jennie says:

    Great post! I remember that 1993 blizzard and not because I lived anywhere near it, but that my cousins (who lived in CT) got out of school for what seemed like EVER and my school (in Alaska) never closed school for snow no matter what the accumulation was!

    On the 1964 earthquake, a really great primary source is this video taken in Valdez harbor during the quake (its from the AK state archives): http://vilda.alaska.edu/cgi-bin/viewer.exe?CISOROOT=/cdmg11&CISOPTR=3362

    I actually use it in my classroom.

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