THIS MONTH IN HISTORY
By Gregory DL Morris
Hurricane Idalia spun out to sea last week, having cut a swath across Florida, Georgia, and the coastal Carolinas, almost exactly 123 years after the Galveston Hurricane of September 8, 1900.
If asked to name the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, most people would probably mention Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Great Fire of Chicago (1871), or the San Francisco earthquake and fire (1906). But with an estimated 8,000 fatalities, possibly as many as 12,000, and the destruction of an entire city, the Galveston Hurricane was by far the worst.
At the time, Galveston was a major port, by some accounts the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. But the opera house, the banks, the warehouses, factories, and homes all stood only 9 feet above sea level. The storm surged to 15 feet above sea level, smashing even stone buildings as it swept in, and then dragging most of the wreckage and the dead out to sea as it swept out.
The San Francisco earthquake ranks second, with an estimated 3,000 fatalities between the quake and the fires that ravaged most of downtown. The roiling upheavals collapsed buildings onto furnaces and boilers. The same shock waves broke gas lines, which fuelled the fires, and broke water mains that prevented the fires from being fought.
The third-worst is by far the least known: the Peshtigo Fire of 1871. A raging forest fire consumed a million and a half acres of woodland in southeastern Wisconsin and reduced the entire lumber town of Peshtigo, and surrounding communities to ash.
Accounts from survivors report that the conflagration was so big and so hot that it created its own weather, including fire tornadoes and lightning. One of the artifacts in the small memorial museum in the town today is a stack of heavy stoneware dishes fused solid by the heat.
Most estimates put the death toll at about 2,500, but some researchers put the actual number at twice that or more. Few records were kept of the populations working at outlying lumber camps or families in farming communities, all incinerated, leaving not even bones. The higher estimates are inferred from better-known population counts of other areas with similar area and productivity.
How could such a horrific event be unknown today? One reason is that it happened on October 8, 1871, the same day as the Chicago Fire, which for the record, killed 300 people, about a tenth of those who perished at Peshtigo.
Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, has an official death toll of 2,975, putting it fourth. That was the revised total a year after the storm and is about 60% greater than the 1,836 people killed in Hurricane Katrina.
The Johnstown, Pennsylvania Flood of 1889, killed 2,209 people and is often included on the list of worst natural disasters. However grievous the death toll it was caused by the collapse of a poorly built and maintained earthen dam, making it a man-made disaster.
To that point, there is no doubt that the death toll from hurricanes is made worse by large numbers of people living in exposed coastal areas and flood plains, as well as by destroying barrier islands and wetlands that act as natural buffers to tidal surges. Building big cities over major fault lines or pushing settlements deep into the woods is also courting disaster.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are no natural disasters. There are only natural events that become human disasters when people choose to live in harm’s way.
Gregory DL Morris is a business journalist and historian who reports regularly for TLR.