The worst U.S. natural disaster ever?

Heard Hugh Hewitt this evening describing Hurricane Katarina as potentially the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Katarina’s body count may well turn out to be staggering, but there are a couple of large events sitting at or near the top of the charts. The Johnstown Flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1839, for example, killed more than 2200.

Johnstown was a growing and thriving steel town built, unfortunately, on a flood plain, downstream from the derelict South Fork Dam. There was always talk about the dam giving way some day, but no one ever tried to do much about it. When the flood struck, survivors took to their attics and bodies were still being found months, and in some cases, years after the flood. It took five years for the town to be rebuilt.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), however, the biggest U.S. natural disaster was the Galveston hurricane on September 8, 1900 that killed a reported 8,000 people. You can find accounts and photos of the disaster here, here and here.

At the time, Galveston was the jewel of Southern commerce, an emerging economic power and the wealthiest city in Texas. It’s deepwater channel made it the most important seaport in Texas through which 70% of the nation’s cotton crop passed, and it was the first city in Texas to have electricity and telephones. It was also a popular tourist attraction for it’s warm, shallow Gulf waters. In fact, it shallow waters had led some experts to predict that the city was hurricane-proof, and a seawall was thought to be unnecessary. Despite telegrams and warnings of severe weather passed on from Cuba and Florida, the inhabitants were unconcerned; hurricanes had always passed them by before.

On the morning of September 8 many people were even down on the beach marveling at the impressive waves that were breaking. At the height of the storm that night the entire island would be underwater; nearly a quarter of the islands population perished and every home destroyed. Modern reconstructions of the storm’s fury calculate that it was a Class 4 hurricane with 130 mph winds and a storm surge more than 15 feet high. While the city was rebuilt (this time with a seawall) over the next decade and regained some of its prosperity, it became secondary to nearby Houston.

So let’s see if we can piece this recipe together. Take a noticeable natural feature, such as a flood plain, a sea-level island or even a city 8 feet below sea-level; mix in human hubris; add water; stir. Well thank goodness we won’t let something like this happen again.

What did you say – something about a San Andreas fault? Silly. It’s George Bush’s fault.

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