10 Worst Disasters of the Century

Popular Mechanics lists the 10 worst disasters of the century (occurring in the United States):

1906: San Francisco Earthquake Fire
When a magnitude 7.8 quake rumbled from the San Andreas Fault to the working-class center of town, continuous explosions formed a lurid tower of smoke throughout the city. But the first of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century teaches the lessons of reconstruction—and set the foundation for a century of earthquake research to come.

1910: The Big Burn
A rainless summer, bizarre winds and sudden lightning merged hundreds of fires into a great inferno, leaving firefighters to fend off the Big Blowup with buckets of water and their bare hands. By the time the second of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century was put out, the wildfires had claimed 85 lives, but also sparked a debate that burns to this day.

1918: Spanish Flu Pandemic
More deadly than the World War unfolding alongside it, the virus wiped out America’s young and healthy and, by the time our troops had carried it across the pond, took out 50 million people worldwide. The good news from the third of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century? We’ve finally decoded it, and it’s still teaching scientists how to prepare.

1925: Tri-State Tornado
The longest, deadliest twister in American history (and the fourth of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century) whipped through four states, flattening 15,000 homes and killing nearly 700 people. But, at a time when forecasters weren’t even allowed to speak of tornadoes, the disaster’s toll was matched by its social impact: increased public awareness.

1938: The New England Hurricane
With weather radar and satellite technology still decades away, 120-mph winds and two-story-tall waves whipped vulnerable northern cities with equal fury. Despite taking nearly 700 lives and leaving 63,000 homeless, the fifth of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century still helps dense urban centers such as New York prepare for the next surprise.

1964: The Great Alaskan Earthquake
The magnitude 9.2 quake was just the start of it. Underwater landslides gave way to several local tsunamis that destroyed coastlines from British Columbia to California. After a massive rebuilding effort, the sixth of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century has led to round-the-clock seismic monitoring.

1974: Super Tornado Outbreak
Three weather patterns combined to form a backbreaking 148 twisters across 13 states, wreaking 15 hours of havoc upon the central and eastern U.S. and claiming 330 lives. But the seventh of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century brought about the modern tornado measurement system—and lots of cash for cyclone preparedness.

1980: Mount St. Helens Eruption
One last earthquake turned the sleeping giant loose, and soon 230 sq. mi. of lush forest was entombed in a lunar wasteland. Fifty-seven fatalities and $1 billion of damage later, the eighth—and perhaps most famous—of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century is now considered the dawn of American earthquake science—and a jumping off point for GPS.

1993: Storm of the Century
With unimaginable amounts of powder dumping down across the eastern U.S., the Storm of the Century just kept on coming—snowfall records, tornadoes, 2.5 million people without power. Post-blizzard finger pointing led to better communication, but the ninth of our 10 Worst Disasters of the Century had its ultimate impact in prediction.

2005: Hurricane Katrina
The freshest in our collective consciousness of the 10 Worst Disasters of the Century, Katrina remains as horrifying as it is instructing. In the context of 100 years of tragedy wrought by Mother Nature, the Category 5 hurricane and its aftermath can teach us just as much as we learned in its immediate aftermath.

(Visit the Popular Mechanics site for more information on each of these disasters.)

Looking over the list, I would say the Spanish Flu Pandemic was probably the worst of these. Having personally gone through Hurricane Andrew in 1992, I noticed its absence from the list.

Of course, once you step outside of the United States and compare with disasters around the world, it puts even some of these disasters in a different perspective. For example, here are some of the stats on the Asian Tsunami triggered by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake:

Although initial estimates had put the worldwide death toll at over 275,000 with thousands of others missing, more recent analysis compiled by the United Nations lists a total of 229,866 people lost, including 186,983 dead and 42,883 missing . . .

The magnitude of the earthquake was originally recorded as 9.0, but has been increased to between 9.1 and 9.3. At this magnitude, it is the second largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph . . . it was large enough that it caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as half an inch, or over a centimetre. It also triggered earthquakes in other locations as far away as Alaska. (from Wikipedia)

The bottom line is that any disaster, no matter how big or how small, is a disaster for the people who go through it. Let us continue to pray for the people who lost loved ones from the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis on Wednesday.


  1. You said, “Any disaster, no matter how big or how small, is a disaster for the people who go through it.” Wow! What a reminder not to look down on the experiences of others!

    And what an interesting list. I was especially surprised about the 1925 tornado. And the implication of how the 1929 audiences must have felt about the tornado in Wizard of Oz…

    Thanks for the comment at Goodwordediting.com. You’re a good man.
    (By the way, “Spiele” is the German plural. I think. But I’m pretty rusty. Oh well.)

  2. Barrie says:

    That was an interesting list. It just goes to show how better forecasting has helped. The early hurricanes of 1920’s and 1930’s were pretty severe and most loss of lives were caused because of the lack of warning on these storms. Having lived in Michigan and Texas and seeing Tornado’s quite often, I can only imagine what the storm in 1925 was like. I remember visiting California and experiencing my first earth quake. That was very eerie to say the least. Just goes to show that we all need to trust in God for our safety.


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