Q: In the past decade, it seems as if the world has been awash in natural weather disasters. Most recently would be the flooding in West Virginia and the wildfires in California. My question: Of the “Big Five” natural disasters — earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis, which ones are most notorious? Which ones are the most powerful? Which ones are the most deadly? Which ones do the most damage and are the most costly to clean up after? Is there a single “Monster Event” of all time?
F.G., of Edwardsville
A: I don’t mean to be crass, but your question sort of reminds me of asking a condemned man whether he’d prefer being shot, stabbed, strangled, poisoned or electrocuted. Throughout history, almost all of the disasters you mention have on numerous occasions been horrifically destructive with a single event sometimes leaving millions dead and devastating huge swaths of land in just a few days, hours or even seconds.
Of the ones you list, tornadoes are typically the least deadly event, relatively speaking, although I’m sure anyone who has suffered through one would argue the point. According to some accounts, the most grisly such storm roared through Manikganj, Bangladesh, in 1989, killing an estimated 1,300. None of the other most destructive top 10 tornadoes topped 1,000, including the worst in U.S. history — the so-called Tri-State Tornado that killed 695 and destroyed large sections of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925. (Of course, tornadoes are much more frequent, so I suppose you have to take that into account when talking about notorious.)
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After that, all bets are off, because putting together a Top 10 list would likely lead to a flood of debate among experts. If you’re talking about events that happened centuries ago, records are poor and estimates can vary greatly. And, here’s a fact that may shake your world: You didn’t even mention two even more gruesome natural disasters: disease and drought.
If you add those last two to your list, there would be no argument: The worst recorded disaster in history was the Black Death or Great Plague, which is thought to have killed between 75 million and 200 million people from 1346 to 1353. Believed to have started on the arid plains of Central Asia, it wiped out, depending on the estimate, anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of Europe’s population. It took 300 years for the world to recover to pre-plague population levels. While we’re talking about disease, we can’t forget about the monstrous flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, which certainly killed between 35 million and 75 million and perhaps as many as 100 million worldwide — 16 million in India alone.
Droughts, too, can be catastrophically lethal because they usually last much longer with little that can be done. In 1769, a shortfall in crops followed by severe drought in India led to a four-year disaster that took 10 million lives. From 1876 to 1879, China watched rivers dry up and livestock die, leading to a gargantuan drop in food production and nine million deaths in nine provinces. Most people know about the Potato Famine of 1845 to 1848 that claimed a million Irish lives. Unfortunately, droughts are not a thing of the distant past. As recently as the early 1980s, drought in nearly two dozen African nations was killing 25,000 or more per month, leaving another million dead in three years.
While droughts and disease may overshadow them in pure numbers, at least four of the Big Five disasters you name frequently cause death and destruction on a scale that boggles the mind. When it comes to the most powerful blows, earthquakes are generally the most frequent, but floods can be the most deadly.
In fact, if you leave out disease and drought, experts usually agree that the worst natural disaster in history occurred in 1931, when two years of drought in China were followed by abnormally heavy snows in 1930 and a Noahlike deluge in the summer of 1931. In July alone, four weather stations along the Yangtze River reported rain totals of 24 inches for the month. A few put the death toll from flooding at 145,000, but most say a more realistic estimate may be on the order of about 4 million. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 51 million people were affected.
As it turns out, by your definition, the top four disasters in history all happened in China. In 1887, another 1 million to 2 million people perished in the Yellow River Flood. This event tops the deadliest earthquake in recorded history — the estimated 7.9 quake that rocked central China on Jan. 23, 1556, which left 830,000 dead. More recently, China was hit by the 7.8 Tangshan earthquake on July 28, 1976, which killed perhaps as many as 650,000, and the 7.8-8.5 Haiyuan Earthquake on Dec. 16, 1920, which left 275,000 dead. The latter ranks No. 8 or 9 on lists of history’s worst disasters.
Cyclones also can deal a knockout punch. On Nov. 13, 1970, the Bhola cyclone in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) killed by some estimates as many as a half million, making it the deadliest cyclone in history. However, it was closely followed by the 1839 India of 1839 and 1737 Calcutta cyclones, each of which produced 300,000 deaths. Still other top disasters (depending on the source and estimates) were the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (280,000 deaths); the Antioch (Turkey) earthquake of 526 (250,000-300,000 deaths); and the Egyptian-Syrian quake of 1201, which some say may have killed 1.1 million.
So as I said at the beginning, I’ll leave it to you to choose the worst poison. And you want to know something? We still haven’t exhausted the list of possible disasters. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia may have killed 92,000, the 2003 European heat wave caused 70,000 deaths, a 1970 avalanche in Peru left 20,000 dead, and a blizzard in Iran killed 4,000 so there seems no limit to Mother Nature’s cruel tricks.
What brought together the largest public gathering in Italian history?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: It may sound corny (and sexist) today, but in 1907 Will Keith Kellogg found the perfect way to introduce his new Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Co., which he founded in 1906, to the public. In his ad campaign, he asked women to “wink at your grocer and see what you get.” What they got, of course, was a free sample of Kellogg’s new corn flakes. The idea reportedly boosted sales by a factor of 15 in New York City alone, quickly putting his company on solid economic footing.