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DISASTERS. In the modern world, the traditional view of natural disasters as punishments for human wickedness has given way to the scientific study of the causes of seemingly unpredictable acts of nature. In recent years, however, scholars have placed more emphasis on the roles played by greed and indifference to potential human suffering in many seemingly "natural" disasters. The following is a selective list of natural and man-made disasters that have occurred in the United States. It should be noted that disaster statistics are often approximations, at best. Not only do contemporary news accounts frequently differ, but there are no standards by which to judge whether deaths and injuries were directly caused by a cataclysmic event.


17 September 1908. The first airplane crash involving a fatality took place at Fort Myer, Virginia. A plane flown by Orville Wright and Thomas E. Selfridge was thrown out of control when it hit a bracing wire. Wright was badly injured and Selfridge was killed.

2 July 1912. The first U.S. dirigibleAkron blew up over Atlantic City, New Jersey, at an altitude of 2,000 feet; the builder of the Akron and four crewmembers were killed.

21 February 1922. The Italian-built hydrogen-filled U.S. dirigible Roma exploded in Hampton, Virginia, killing thirty-four of the crew of forty-five. After the disaster, hydrogen—which is much cheaper than helium but highly flammable—was no longer used in U.S. airships.

6 May 1937. The 803-foot-long German dirigible Hindenburg—the largest airship ever built—exploded in midair at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, just thirty-two seconds after dropping rope mooring lines to the ground. The airship, filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas, crashed in flames, killing thirteen passengers, twenty-two crewmembers, and one ground handler. The cause of the crash was never determined. Leading theories suggested either an electrical discharge in the atmosphere or sabotage (for which there was no evidence).

28 July 1945. The pilot of a B-25 bomber lost his bearings and crashed into the Empire State Building in New York City between the seventy-eighth and seventy-ninth floors, setting fire to the upper part of the building. The three military men in the plane and eleven people in the building were killed; twenty-six people were injured.

30 June 1956. A TWA Lockheed Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 collided at an estimated angle of thirty degrees over the Grand Canyon, killing all 128 people onboard both planes. The planes had left Los Angeles, California, within minutes of each other and were flying at 300 MPH at 21,000 feet. The captains had chosen to fly in airspace not controlled by Air Route Traffic Control Centers. A result of the crash was the 1958 Federal Aviation Act, establishing an independent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to modernize air traffic control and expand controlled airspace.

16 December 1960. A United Airlines DC-8 jet bound for Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport with eighty-four passengers and crew, and a TWA Super Constellation bound for La Guardia Airport with forty-four passengers and crew collided in midair over Staten Island, New York, during a snowstorm. The United plane crashed in a Brooklyn tenement district, the TWA plane, in Staten Island harbor. All 128 people in the planes, and six people on the ground, were killed. As a result, the FAA drastically reduced speed limits for aircraft entering terminals and assigned extra traffic controllers to airports with high flight volumes.

1 March 1962. An American Airlines Boeing 707 crashed in Jamaica Bay, New York, shortly after takeoff. All ninety-five people aboard were killed.

3 June 1963. A chartered military airplane vanished near southeast Alaska. Of the 101 people aboard, no survivors were ever found.

4 September 1971. A Boeing 727 carrying 111 persons crashed into a mountainside while approaching the airport at Juneau, Alaska, and fell into a deep gorge; everyone aboard died.

29 December 1972. An Eastern Airlines L-1011 TriStar jumbo jet crashed in the Florida Everglades during its landing approach. Wreckage from the 350,000-pound craft was strewn over a 15,000-foot area. Of the 176 people aboard, 101 died.

24 June 1975. An Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 jetliner crashed in flames at the edge of Kennedy International Airport in New York City while attempting to land during an electrical storm. Of the 124 passengers and crew, 112 died.

25 September 1978. A private plane and jetliner collided near San Diego, California, killing 144 people.

25 May 1979. In one of the worst air disasters in history, a U.S. DC-10 jetliner bound for Los Angeles, California, crashed on takeoff at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago after one engine and its support pylon fell off. All 258 passengers and thirteen crew were killed.

9 July 1982. A Pan American jetliner crashed in Kenner, Louisiana, killing all 146 on board and eight on the ground.

2 August 1985. A Delta jetliner crashed in a storm near the Dallas–Fort Worth Airport, killing 134 people.

16 August 1987. A Northwest Airlines jet bound for Phoenix crashed after takeoff from Detroit, killing 156 people.

11 May 1989. ValuJet Airlines flight 592 crashed in the Florida Everglades, a few minutes after taking off from Miami, killing 110 passengers and the crew. Investigators determined the plane was carrying illegally stored oxygen generators that apparently fanned a fire, causing the crash.

8 September 1994. A USAir Boeing 737 was approaching Pittsburgh when it crashed into the woods northwest of the airport, killing all 132 aboard.

17 July 1996. Trans-World Airlines Flight 800 exploded shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport, killing all 230 passengers and crew. Investigators concluded that air conditioners cooling the plane had turned the fuel in the nearly empty fuel tank into combustible vapors that ignited from a tiny spark in the electrical wiring. (See TWA Flight 800.)

31 October 1999. Cairo-bound Egyptair Flight 990, a Boeing 767-300, left New York with 217 passengers and crew. A half-hour later the plane plunged into the Atlantic off the coast of Massachusetts.

12 November 2001. Minutes after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport, American Airlines Flight 587, bound for the Dominican Republic, crashed into the town of Belle Harbor in Queens, New York, killing all 260 people onboard and five on the ground.

Building and Dam Collapses

31 May 1889. The Conemaugh Lake in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flooded after a forty-eight-hour storm and burst through South Fork Dam, sending 20 million tons of water into the valley below in less than forty-five minutes. The man-made lake, built as a reservoir, had been purchased in 1852 by a group of industrialists as a private fishing pond. They removed the dam's discharge pipes to keep the water level high and partially blocked the spillways to keep the fish from escaping. These actions had the effect of removing the dam's pressure valve. As many as 3,000 people were killed by the flood or the fire that broke out on a thirty-acre island of floating wreckage blocked by a stone bridge. This was one of the most severe floods in U.S. history (see Johnstown Flood).

28 January 1922. The roof of the 1,800-seat Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, D.C., collapsed during a performance, killing ninety-five (some accounts say 120) and injuring more than 100.

13 March 1928. The collapse of St. Francis Dam, in San Francisquito Canyon, California, forty-five miles north of Los Angeles, sent billions of gallons of water racing through the sixty-mile-wide floodplain at 500,000 cubic feet per second. The death toll was 350; most of the victims were crushed by boulders and debris.

26 February 1972. A coal-refuse dam in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, collapsed, spreading water and sludge into the valley below; 118 died and 4,000 were left homeless.

17 July 1981. Two of the three concrete walkways at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring nearly 200. An investigation revealed that the wrong configuration of metal rods was used in the construction of the walkways.

Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions

15 December 1811. A strong earthquake in New Madrid, Missouri, the first of many over a nearly two-month period, destroyed the town and several others nearby. While few casualties were reported, the earthquakes could be felt over a 1.5-million-square- mile area. They destroyed forests, opened large ravines, and even changed the course of the Mississippi River for several months.

31 August 1886. An earthquake shook the Eastern United States from Boston to Charleston, North Carolina, and from Milwaukee to New Orleans, killing 110 people in Charleston.

18 April 1906. San Francisco Earthquake. One of the most devastating natural disasters in the recorded history of North America, this earthquake and the subsequent fires killed 700 people and ravaged the city.

27 March 1964. One of the most powerful earthquakes to strike anywhere in the world (measuring up to 8.4 on the Richter scale) hit southern Alaska, killing at least 115 and causing over $350 million in damage.

18 May 1980. Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington erupted in the first of a series of explosions 500 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Advance warning and evacuations kept the death toll at sixty-one. The eruption felled 130,000 acres of forest, and buried 150 miles of rivers and twenty-six lakes. Across the Northwest, nearly 6,000 miles of roadway were covered with ash; a cloud of ash 500 miles long and 100 miles wide moved eastward over Montana and Idaho.

17 October 1989. With an epicenter ten miles northeast of Santa Cruz, California, the Loma Prieta earthquake (which measured 7.1 on the Richter scale) was responsible for sixty-three deaths, 3,767 injuries and $6 billion in property damage in the Los Angeles area.

17 January 1994. Measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale, with an epicenter twenty miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the Northridge earthquake killed fifty-seven people, severely injured 1,500, and caused an estimated $15 to $30 billion in damage.


Fall 1793. A yellow fever epidemic killed thousands in Philadelphia.

Mid-August–October 1878. A yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee, killed 5,000 residents; 25,000 people fled, spreading the disease elsewhere in the South, increasing the overall death toll to 14,000.

1918–1919. The worldwide influenza pandemic first appeared in the United States at the Fort Riley and Camp Funston army training camps in Kansas, where forty-six died. At the height of the outbreak, in October 1918, more than 21,000 U.S. deaths were attributed to the disease. Total U.S. fatalities were said to be 550,000, more than ten times the number of American casualties in World War I.

1931. A diphtheria epidemic killed about 17,000 children in the United States.

1981–. A virus believed to have originated in Africa in the 1950s, possibly in monkeys, was first documented in humans in the United States in 1981. The infecting agent of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV), which spreads primarily through sexual contact and injected-drug use. As of mid-2001, AIDS deaths in the United States totaled 457,667; an estimated 800,000–900,000 persons are infected with HIV/ AIDS. While new drug formulations have kept HIV-infected individuals alive for increasingly longer periods, and the new AIDS cases and deaths have declined, the rate of HIV infection remains about 40,000 annually.


16 December 1835. In New York City, 674 buildings burned in a fire.

14 July 1845. A fire that started on a New York City street spread to a building where saltpeter (used in manufacturing gunpowder) was stored. An unknown number of people were killed, and 1,000 buildings were destroyed.

8–9 October 1871. The Chicago Fire left 300 dead and 90,000 homeless, with property loss at $200 million.

8–14 October 1871. After months of drought, hot, dry gale-force winds whipped forest fires into an inferno that destroyed Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing 1,152 of its citizens as well as about 350 people from neighboring towns. Nearby swamps produced methane gas, which exploded in the intense heat even before the fires reached town. Many sought refuge from the airborne chunks of burning debris on the bridge over the Peshtigo River, which ignited and collapsed. More than 4 million acres of forests and grasslands burned. Yet the fire received minimal news coverage because the Chicago fire, caused by the same dry winds, began on the same day.

5 December 1876. A fire that apparently started when a lamp ignited a backstage curtain in the Brooklyn Theater in Brooklyn, New York, killed 295.

4 June 1892. Flaming oil from a storage tank was carried by rushing floodwaters into Oil City and Titusville, Pennsylvania. Both towns were destroyed; the death toll was 130.

1 September 1894. A forest fire in eastern Minnesota spread to Hinkley (population 1,200), destroying it and more than twelve other neighboring towns. The death toll was more than 600. Hinkley's survivors took refuge in a gravel pit filled with stagnant water or in a lake several miles out of town, where they had fled on a train that caught fire.

30 December 1903. A fire started by a stage light that ignited gauze draperies resulted in tragedy at the new, 1,602-seat Iroquois Theater in Chicago. Stagehands waited too long to lower the fireproof safety curtain, and the fire exits led to only one narrow passageway. Of the 602 deaths, 400 were caused by a massive stampede for the exits. A new fire code for public theaters in Chicago was instituted after the disaster.

7 February 1904. A strong wind turned a fire in a dry goods warehouse in Baltimore into an out-of-control blaze that raged for two days and caused $85 million in property damage, the second worst fire to date in U.S. history. Yet only one person, a fireman, was killed.

4 March 1908. An overheated furnace burst into flame at the Lake View School in Collinwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, killing 171 of the 360 children and nine teachers.

25 March 1911. Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed 145, mostly young women, in a garment factory.

12 October 1918. Forest fires near Duluth, Minnesota, and northern Wisconsin destroyed twenty-one towns, killing 800, and leaving 12,000 homeless.

21 April 1930. Fire broke out at a construction site in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus and spread to the tarpaper roof of the prison. Most of the prisoners were kept in their cells until escape from the flames was impossible. The prison, designed to hold 1,500 inmates, had a population of 4,300; 317 died and 231 were injured.

18 March 1937. A gas leak caused a violent explosion near the end of the school day at the schoolhouse in New London, Texas. Parents waiting to collect their children watched in horror as 294 children and teachers were killed by the explosion or crushed under debris.

23 April 1940. A dance hall fire in Natchez, Mississippi, killed 198.

28 November 1942. Lack of exit doors, doors that opened inward, and a great deal of flammable material contributed to the death by fire of 474 people (or 493; accounts differ) at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. Fire had broken out in the basement bar and spread quickly up to the dance floor.

6 July 1944. A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus tent, weatherproofed with a highly flammable substance, caught fire and collapsed in Hartford, Connecticut. Blocked exits prevented escape for many of the 7,000 people attending the show. The fatalities numbered at least 163; injury statistics range from 174 to 261.

7 December 1946. Fire broke out early in the morning in a corridor of the fifteen-story Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, which had been classified as "fireproof" in a safety inspection despite having no sprinkler system or fire escapes. Of the 280 guests, 119 died; those who perished had barricaded themselves in their rooms or could not be reached by firemen, whose ladders extended only to the tenth floor. Ninety other guests suffered serious injuries.

1 December 1958. A fire at Our Lady of the Angels parochial school in Chicago killed 93 children and nuns. The disaster prompted the establishment of new safety regulations, fire drills, and fire fighting equipment in many U.S. schools.

28 May 1977. A supper club fire in Southgate, Kentucky, killed 164.

21 November 1980. A fire that broke out in the kitchen of the twenty-one-story MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, killed 85 and injured more than 600, mostly from smoke inhalation. There were no sprinklers on many floors, flammable synthetics were used in building materials, and self-locking doors on stairwells trapped guests. The tragedy accelerated updating of fire codes to emphasize smoke control and provide for the special needs of high-rise buildings.

Industrial: Chemical Spills, Explosions, and Mining

1 May 1900. An underground explosion at a Scofield, Utah, mine killed 201 miners.

19 May 1902. A mine at Coal Creek, Tennessee, exploded, killing 184 workers.

6 December 1907. In two adjoining Monongah, West Virginia, coal mines owned by the Consolidated Coal Company, runaway mining cars filled with coal created an electrical fire (probably by crashing into an electrical line) that ignited highly explosive coal dust. The explosion—the worst U.S. mining disaster ever—killed 362 miners. Only four escaped; recovery of the bodies took more than three weeks.

19 December 1907. An apparent gas explosion at the Darr Coal Mine in Jacob's Creek, Pennsylvania, killed 239 of the 240 miners.

13 November 1909. Bales of hay caught fire near the entrance to a mine at Cherry, Illinois, and spread to the mineshaft, killing 259.

22 October 1913. An explosion caused by a buildup of coal dust in a mine owned by the Stag Canyon Fuel Company in Dawson, New Mexico, filled the mine with deadly gases and sealed off the exits. Only five miners were rescued; 263 died.

18 May 1918. A TNT explosion blew up the Aetna Chemical Company plant in Oakdale, Pennsylvania, killing about 200 people.

17 July 1944. Explosions at two ammunition dumps killed more than 300 in Port Chicago, California.

30 September 1944. Liquid gas tanks exploded in Cleveland, Ohio, setting off a fire that spread over a fifty-block area. Property damage was estimated at $10 million, about 100 people lost their lives, and more than 200 were injured.

20 October 1944. Another liquid gas tank exploded in Cleveland; 121 died and hundreds were left homeless.

19 May 1928. A coal mine explosion at Mather, Pennsylvania, killed 195 miners.

1942–1980. More than 20,000 tons of chemical waste, including dioxin, buried between 1942 and 1953 by the Hooker Electrochemical and Olin corporations in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York, began to seep into backyards and basement walls in the mid-1970s. Residents had far greater than normal occurrences of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, and other serious health problems. Studies helped focus public attention on the problem of toxic waste and led to passage of the Emergency Response (Superfund) Act in 1980, making owners and operators of hazardous waste dumps liable for clean-up costs.

2 May 1972. A fire in the nearly 5,000-foot-deep Sunshine Silver Mine in Kellogg, Idaho, spread flames and carbon monoxide fumes, blocking hoist exits; ninety-one perished. Two miners were found alive after seven days.

5 December 1982. When the Meramec River in Times Beach, Missouri, thirty-five miles southwest of St. Louis, overflowed its banks, it spread oil that had been sprayed on the roads to control dust. The oil contained dioxin, the most toxic chemical known, producing adverse health effects at all tested levels. Virtually the entire town of 300 was evacuated, and more than $33 million was spent on cleanup.

24 March 1989. The tanker Exxon Valdez, loaded with crude oil, struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 10.8 million gallons over a 500-square-mile area. Cleanup efforts were hampered by frozen ground and the remoteness of the site.


31 October 1837. The side-wheeler Monmouth collided with the Tremont on the Mississippi River near Profit Island, killing 300.

13 January 1840. Near Eaton's Neck, New York, the steamboat Lexington caught fire, killing 140.

9 August 1841. Containers of turpentine stored near the boilers on the steamboat Erie exploded soon after it left Buffalo, New York, for Chicago. The newly painted and varnished ship immediately caught fire, killing 242, many of whom were immigrant passengers trapped in the steerage section.

17 June 1850. A fire aboard the steamer Griffith on Lake Erie took the lives of all 300 aboard.

24 December 1853. En route to California, the steamer San Francisco foundered off the Mexican coast; of its 700 passengers, 240 drowned.

13 November 1854. The wreck of an immigrant ship, the New Era, en route to New York from Bremen, Germany, killed more than 300 off the New Jersey coast.

12 September 1857. The side-wheel steamer Central America was bound from Havana, Cuba, to New York City with miners transporting about three tons of gold bars and coins when it was struck by a hurricane and began leaking. As soon as the last lifeboats left with women and children, a giant wave pushed the steamer to the bottom of the ocean, about 160 miles off the South Carolina coast. Only 153 of the 575 passengers and crew were saved. The wreck was finally located in 1987; after three years of litigation, a federal judge awarded the gold to a salvage group.

7–8 September 1860. The steamer Lady Elgin collided with the schooner Augusta on Lake Michigan; 287 of the 400 passengers and crew drowned.

25 March 1865. The General Lyon, a propeller-driven steamship, caught fire and sank off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, killing some 400 passengers and crew.

27 April 1865. The coal-burning Mississippi steamer Sultana, licensed to carry 376 persons, left New Orleans on 21 April en route for Cairo, Illinois. On 23 April, while the ship docked at Vicksburg, Mississippi, for boiler repairs, the roughly 100 passengers and eighty crewmen were joined by 2,134 Union soldiers paroled from Confederate prisons. (The ship's owners stood to earn $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer transported north.) At 2 a.m. on 27 April, less than an hour after sailing from Memphis, the ship's boilers burst, hurling hundreds into the Mississippi. The steam's twin smokestacks collapsed, crushing men underneath. An upper deck fell, spilling passengers into the burning boiler. The fire spread, causing hundreds of soldiers to jump over-board into dangerously crowded waters. Fire ruined the lifeboats or made them impossible to reach. The dead officially numbered 1,547; some estimates put the toll higher. Although this was one of the worst ship disasters of all time, newspaper coverage was minimal because of coverage of the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated on 15 April.

3 October 1866. En route to New Orleans from New York City, the steamer Evening Star foundered at sea; 250 were lost.

26 November 1898. A rainstorm that swept the New England coast and Long Island, New York, destroyed or damaged 213 vessels. The Portland, a side-wheeler, had sailed from Boston before the storm and disappeared the next day, far south of its course. It is believed that the Portland collided with another ship near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and sank.

30 June 1900. A steamship and pier at Hoboken, New Jersey, caught fire, killing 326 persons and causing over $4 million in property damage.

15 June 1904. On the paddle wheel excursion steamer General Slocum a paint locker (or a stove in the galley; accounts differ) caught fire just 300 yards from a New York City pier. Yet Captain William van Schaick kept steaming up the East River into a strong northeast wind that fanned the flames and crashed the boat into North Brother Island. Of the 1,500 passengers, mostly parents, teachers, and children, 1,021 burned to death, drowned, or were caught in the churning paddle wheels. The inexperienced crew opened hatchways that allowed the fire to spread to the upper decks. Even worse, lifeboats were tied down with wire, fire hoses were full of holes, and the life preservers had been filled with sawdust and metal rods to bring them up to mandatory weight. Many of those who perished were drowned or caught in the paddle wheels in an attempt to leave the burning ship; more than half the dead were children. This was the worst harbor disaster in U.S. history. Van Schaick was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison, but President Theodore Roosevelt pardoned him after only two years, citing his age (sixty-three).

11 February 1907. The schooner Harry Knowlton crashed into the side-wheel Joy Line steamer Larchmont, en route from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York, punching a hole in its port side. The Larchmont sank in fifteen minutes. A lifeboat rescued only nine survivors, including the captain. The other 332 passengers and crew drowned in the freezing waters, were fatally scalded by steam from a ruptured steam line, or froze to death on a life raft.

24 July 1915. An excursion steamer, the Eastland, capsized while in port in Chicago, killing over 800.

24–25 October 1918. The Canadian-Pacific steamship Princess Sophia struck a reef west of Juneau, Alaska, to no apparent ill effect—rescuers responding to distress calls decided evacuation was unnecessary—but a subsequent storm dashed the ship against the reef and killed all 398 aboard, a tragedy witnessed by the powerless men in the rescue boats.

8 September 1934. A fire that broke out in the writing room of the cruise ship Morro Castle off the New Jersey coast left 137 (some accounts say 134) dead of the 562 people aboard. The captain had died suddenly the previous evening, and the ship—returning from Havana to New York—was commanded by the chief officer, William Warms. He wasn't informed of the fire until after he steered the ship into a twenty-knot wind, which created a raging inferno. No passenger drills had been held on the ship, and some of the hydrants had been capped to avoid leakage. Of the first ninety-eight people to evacuate in lifeboats, ninety-two were crew. Warms and the chief engineer were found guilty of negligence, and the Cuba Mail Steamship Company received the maximum ($10,000) penalty.

16 April 1947. Fire broke out on the freighter Grand camp at Texas City, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. Loaded with highly flammable ammonium nitrate, the freighter blew up and set fifty tankers in the harbor ablaze. The death toll was estimated as at least 500, perhaps as high as 800.

25 July 1956. On a foggy morning off the coast of Massachusetts, the captain of the Stockholm, owned by the Swedish–American Line, misinterpreted radar signals and plowed into the Italian Line flagship Andrea Doria. Forty-three passengers and crew on the Doria died, mostly from the collision (survivors were rescued by nearby ships); three Stockholm crewmembers disappeared and others died later of injuries.

10 April 1963. About 220 miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the U.S.S. Thresher, a nuclear-powered sub-marine, mysteriously sank during a routine dive with 129 aboard (see Thresher Disaster).

29 July 1967. The U.S. aircraft carrier Forrestal broke into flames off the coast of North Vietnam following a flight deck explosion; 134 died and 100 others were injured. Sixty planes and helicopters were destroyed or badly damaged. Total damage was estimated at $135 million.

Railroads and Bridges

8 November 1833. The earliest recorded train wreck involving passenger deaths occurred when a Camden and Amboy train derailed and crashed near Hightstown, New Jersey. Two people were killed and twenty-four injured. Former president John Quincy Adams was on the train but escaped unhurt.

29 December 1876. A train bridge spanning a gorge in Ashtabula, Ohio, collapsed in a blizzard. Overturned heating stoves set fire to the passenger cars of the Pacific Express after the train fell into the freezing creek. Ninety-two of the 150 passengers were killed.

10 August 1887. A seventeen-car excursion train packed with about 900 passengers was unable to stop in time to avoid crossing a burning wooden bridge in Chat-sworth, Illinois. The dead numbered 82; about 270 were seriously injured.

2 March 1910. An avalanche in Wellington, Washington, threw two trains that had been stranded for a week in a blizzard into a 300-foot canyon; 118 perished.

1 November 1918. A crowded Brighton Beach commuter train operated by an inexperienced motorman crashed into the barrier at the Malbone Street tunnel in Brooklyn, New York; ninety-two died.

6 February 1951. A Pennsylvania Railroad commuter train fell through a temporary overpass at Wood-bridge, New Jersey, that had opened only three hours before, killing eighty-five. Injured passengers numbered 330 (or 500, according to other reports). The cause of the wreck was attributed to the motorman, who confessed to speeding across the trestle at 50 mph. The trestle was replaced with a 2,000-ton bridge and automatic speed-control devices were installed on the trains.

15 December 1967. The Silver Bridge over the Ohio River connecting Gallipolis, Ohio, and Point Pleasant, West Virginia, collapsed during the evening rush hour, plunging seventy-five cars and trucks into the river; forty-six people were killed. The Federal Highway Administration found "corrosion fatigue" to be a contributing factor. As a result, new bridge inspection standards were developed, and U.S. bridges were systematically inspected for the first time, resulting in drastic reductions in posted speed and load limits.

Space Exploration

27 January 1967. The pressure-sealed Apollo 1 spacecraft caught fire doing a routine test at Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing astronauts Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee. The tragedy exposed the need for higher design, workmanship, and installation standards at NASA.

28 January 1985. The space shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-four seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral; all seven crewmembers were killed. It was the worst accident in the history of the U.S. space program. The Rogers Commission study identified two primary causes: faulty design of the rubber O-rings joining sections of the solid-rocket boosters and the unusually cold temperature on the day of the launch (see Challenger Disaster).


26 February 1993. A bomb in the underground garage of the World Trade Center in New York City killed six people and injured more than 1,000 (see World Trade Center Bombing, 1993). The explosion tore through steel reinforced floors on three levels and left a crater with a 150-foot diameter. In 1994, four followers of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman of Egypt were convicted of roles in the bombing. Reported mastermind Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was captured in 1995 and convicted in 1997.

19 April 1995. A bomb in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killed 169, including children in a day-care center, and injured 500. Timothy McVeigh was convicted of murder and conspiracy in 1997 and sentenced to death. The following year, Terry Nichols received a life sentence for conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter. (See Oklahoma City Bombing.)

11 September 2001. Two hijacked planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. EST, killing an estimated 2,823 people—including those who perished in the towers, 157 passengers and crew in the planes, and New York City firefighters and other rescue personnel. At 9:41 a.m., a third hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing 189. A scant twenty minutes later, a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing all forty-five on board. Both trade center towers collapsed as well as a third trade center building. This was the worst disaster in American history, with a death toll in excess of 3,000. The mastermind of the attacks, carried out by 19 hijackers, is believed to be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, head of the Islamic terrorist organization Al Qaeda. (See 9/11 Attack.)

Weather: Avalanches, Droughts, Floods, Storms, and Tornadoes

17–21 November 1798. New England houses were buried by massive snowdrifts; hundreds of people died.

19 February 1804. Tornadoes stretching from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico killed 800.

10 September 1811. A tornado flattened much of Charleston, South Carolina. The death toll was not recorded, but estimates run as high as 500 or more.

7 May 1840. Tornadoes whipped through Natchez, Mississippi, capsizing a steamboat, the Natchez ferry, and sixty other flatboats on the Mississippi River. The death toll was 317.

September 1841. A hurricane wiped out Saint Jo, Florida (near today's Apalachicola), killing 4,000.

16 June 1842. Another deadly tornado hit Natchez, Mississippi, killing about 500.

10 August 1856. Île Dernier (Last Island), a popular resort off the southern coast of Louisiana, became a desolate beach after a hurricane that killed more than 250 of the island's 300 inhabitants.

27 August 1881. A hurricane flooded lowlands, knocked down buildings, and killed about 700 people from Florida to the Carolinas.

19 February 1884. A cyclone moving up from the Gulf of Mexico devastated Georgia and the Carolinas, killing about 800 people.

11–13 March 1888. A blizzard immobilized New York City, with snowdrifts up to eighteen feet. About 15,000 people were stranded on elevated trains stopped between stations. The storm lashed the East Coast from Washington, D.C., to Boston. As many as 800 people died, 200 in New York City.

28 August 1893. A hurricane in Georgia and South Carolina wiped out coastal towns from Savannah to Charleston and killed about 1,000 people.

1 October 1893. A hurricane struck the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, killing an estimated 2,000 people.

27 May 1896. St. Louis and East St. Louis were struck by a tornado that killed 306, injured 2,500, left 5,000 homeless, and caused damage estimated at $13 million.

26–27 November 1898. A blizzard brought heavy snow and gale-force winds to the East Coast from New York to Maine, wrecking more than 100 ships and killing 455 people.

8 September 1900. Galveston, Texas, hurricane.

31 May 1903. The Kansas, Missouri, and Des Moines rivers overflowed, drowning 200, leaving 8,000 homeless, and causing over $4 million in property damage.

26 May 1917. Tornadoes that swept through Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas killed 249 and injured more than 1,200.

12–14 September 1919. A hurricane in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana caused 488 to drown at sea; 284 more were killed on land. The devastation included $22 million in property damage.

18 March 1925. Thirty-five towns in Missouri, Illinois, and Alabama were destroyed by a five-hour onslaught of tornadoes, the deadliest tornado attack in U.S. history. As many as 792 died; the injured numbered more than 2,000 (one estimate was as high as 13,000). Property damage estimates ranged as high as $500 million, 15,000 were left homeless.

18 September 1926. Florida's east coast, between Miami and Palm Beach, was hit by a hurricane that killed at least 373, made 40,000 homeless, and caused $165 million damage; the injured numbered as many as 6,000.

Late April 1927. Flooding of the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, southward after a severe rainstorm inundated 26,000 square miles, leaving 313 dead and $300 million in damages. Afterward, a new system of river management was instituted, included large reservoirs and spillway channels.

16–17 September 1928. The Lake Okeechobee area of Florida, near West Palm Beach, was struck by a hurricane on its way from Puerto Rico. Despite timely warnings of the storm's path, 2,500 died. Many were farm workers living in shantytowns. An estimated 350,000 were left homeless. The federal government later sponsored a $5 million flood control program for the area and built an eighty-five-mile-long rock levee to replace the mud dikes that had collapsed.

29 September 1927. In a mere five minutes, a tornado that struck Saint Louis, Missouri, killed eighty-five and injured 1,300, leaving $40 million of property damage in a six-square-mile area.

1932–1937. Drought and poor farming practices in the Great Plains produced huge dust storms; known as the Dust Bowl. The phenomenon forced 500,000 to abandon their homes and farms.

2 September 1935. Florida was struck by a hurricane that killed at least 376 and caused property damage estimated at $6 million, including the railroad from Key West to Florida City.

5–6 April 1936. Tornadoes in five southern states killed 421.

January 1937. Record flooding in Ohio and the mid– Mississippi River valleys killed 137 and caused $418 million in property damage.

21 September 1938. The combined forces of a hurricane, ocean storm, and flooding struck Long Island, New York, and New England, killing 680 and causing an estimated $500 million in damages; nearly 2,000 were injured.

21–22 March 1952. Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee were hit by tornadoes that killed 239 and injured 1,202.

8 June 1953. Michigan and Ohio were hit by a series of tornadoes that killed 139 and injured nearly 1,000.

12–18 October 1954. Hurricane Hazel began in Haiti, hit North Carolina and moved up the East Coast, hitting New York and Canada; ninety-nine were killed in the United States and over $100 million in damages was reported.

17–19 August 1955. Hurricane Diane struck six northeastern states, causing heavy floods in southern New England; 191 died, nearly 7,000 were injured. Property damage was $457 million.

26–28 June 1957. Hurricane Audrey and a tidal wave hit Texas and Louisiana, wiping out the town of Cameron, Louisiana, leaving 531 dead or missing, and causing $150 million property damage.

11 April 1965. Thirty-seven tornadoes in six Midwestern states left 242 dead and $250 million in damages.

9–10 February 1969. New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were hit by a two-day snowstorm that left more than fifteen inches of snow; 166 died in the storm and loss of business was estimated at $25 million.

17–20 August 1969. Hurricane Camille struck the southern United States, mainly in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia, killing at least 258, leaving nearly 100,000 homeless, and causing $1.5 billion in damages.

12 February 1971. Tornadoes hit Mississippi and Louisiana, killing 115, injuring 500, and causing $7.5 million in damages.

9–10 June 1972. Heavy rains in the Black Hills of South Dakota caused Rapid Creek to flood, killing 235 and knocking out railroads, bridges, roads, and communications. Damages totaled $100 million. 15–25 June 1972. Hurricane Agnes, which began in Cuba, hit Florida and then the rest of the Atlantic coast up to New York with heavy rains. The death toll for Cuba and the United States was 134, with $60 billion in damages to homes and businesses.

3 April 1974. Nearly 100 tornadoes struck eleven southern and Midwestern states and Canada during an eight-hour period, killing more than 324 and causing property damage estimated as high as $1 billion.

31 July 1976. A violent flashflood in Big Thompson River, Colorado, sent fifty tons of water rushing down the canyon at 200 times the normal flow, killing 145 people, and destroying 600 buildings.

29 August–7 September 1979. Hurricane David left at least 1,000 dead in the southeastern United States and Caribbean.

23–25 August 1992. Hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida and Louisiana, and generated rainstorms in the Middle Atlantic states and as far north as Maine. The storm killed 65 people and caused an estimated $20–$30 billion in damages. As many as 250,000 people lost their homes.

12–14 March 1993. A powerful snowstorm hit the East Coast. More than 270 deaths were attributed to the storm; total damage cost exceeded $6 billion.

7–8 January 1996. The "Blizzard of '96" brought record snows to the Northeast, causing more than 100 deaths.

18 April 1997. The Red River broke through its dike and flooded Grand Forks, North Dakota, and its sister city, East Grand Forks, Minnesota. More than 58,000—nearly the entire population—evacuated. No deaths were reported, but damages exceeded $1 billion. More than 11,000 homes and businesses were destroyed.

3 May 1999. In eleven Oklahoma counties more than forty tornadoes—one of which reached 318 mph, a record—raged for five hours, leaving 44 dead and at least 500 injured. More than 3,000 houses and 47 businesses were destroyed. In neighboring Kansas, three died and more than 1,000 buildings were destroyed.


Alexander, David. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Barry, John M. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Flexner, Stuart, and Doris Flexner. The Pessimist's Guide to History. New York: Quill, 2000.

Hewitt, Kenneth, ed. Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1983.

Karplus, Walter J. The Heavens Are Falling: The Scientific Prediction of Catastrophes in Our Time. New York: Plenum, 1992.

Platt, Rutherford H. Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999.

Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in an Age of Limits. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Schlager, Neil, ed. When Technology Fails: Significant Technological Disasters, Accidents, and Failures of the Twentieth Century. Detroit: Gale, 1994.

Smith, Roger. Catastrophes and Disasters. Edinburgh and New York: Chambers, 1992.

Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wade, Nicholas. The Science Times Book of Natural Disasters. New York: Lyons, 2000.


See alsoAccidents ; Blizzards ; Centralia Mine Disaster ; Earthquakes ; Epidemics and Public Health ; Floods and Flood Control ; Hurricanes ; Princeton, Explosion on the ; Three Mile Island ; Titanic, Sinking of the ; Tornadoes ; Volcanoes ; Wildfires .


views updated Jun 08 2018


Disasters are stressful life situations that result in great terror, property damage, physical harm, and often death. Calamity and catastrophe, synonymous terms for these traumatic events, often involve extreme forces of nature like earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Sometimes, though, people's behavior is the causal factor behind a disaster, or is contributory to higher losses of property and lives from events that were clearly avoidable. This happens through human error (a pilot's engineering mistake in an airplane crash), human carelessness and indifference (lax building practices), and intentional acts of cruelty and violence by some individuals against others (incidents of terrorism). Whatever the cause, disaster victims must struggle to resolve their losses and rebuild their lives, a process that generally takes longer than anyone initially imagines.

Natural Disasters

Devastating acts of nature have led to some of the world's most memorable disasters. Earth, air (wind), fire, and water, the original four elements named by the noted Greek philosopher Empedocles, are key ingredients in the recipe for many disasters. For instance, storms often bring a combination of damaging winds, flooding rains, and lightning that sparks fires. Disturbances within the earth's crust can trigger eruption of volcanoes, the severe ground cracking and shaking of earthquakes, and the flowing walls of water that become damaging tidal waves.

Cyclones and anticyclones. Cyclones are large, swirling windstorms. Though people sometimes refer to tornadoes as cyclones, meteorologists generally consider cyclones to be much larger systems with lower air pressure at their center than is present outside the weather system. Anticyclones have the opposite trait in that the air pressure at their center is higher than is present outside the system. The airflow also differs, with cyclones turning counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere and anticyclones doing the opposite.

When these storms occur in the tropics they are known as tropical depressions and, in addition to the wind, they often have associated heavy rains. If the storms grow to a point that they reach certain sustained wind speeds, they will be classified as hurricanes or typhoons.

East Pakistan was hit by the world's worst cyclone in November 1970200,000 people died and 100,000 others were missing from the storm and a related tidal wave. Southeastern Bangladesh lost 131,000 people (and millions of others died later due to storm-related hunger and disease) following an April 1991 cyclone.

Earthquakes. Rock formations sometimes shift within the earth's crust, a phenomena scientists refer to as plate tectonics. As the rock plates slide along fault lines (veins between the formations along which the shifting occurs), the resulting vibrations sometimes cause violent shaking of the ground. This surface activity may set off landslides, tidal waves on lakes or oceans, and volcanic eruptions. Taken together, these forces often result in building collapses and other damage to infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, electrical power transmission lines, natural gas pipelines, etc.) that, in turn, injures or kills many people in the affected area. Even after the initial shaking ends, aftershocks may cause additional damage and continue to frighten residents of the area.

Shaanxi, China, suffered one of the worst earthquake losses in history with 830,000 deaths from a quake that occurred in 1556. San Francisco's 1906 earthquake took 500 lives and touched off a spectacular fire that consumed four square miles of the city. Most memorable to many readers, though, is the more recent San Francisco area quake that occurred on October 17, 1989, as many baseball fans around the world were settling in to watch a World Series game on television. That one killed 67 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. Other countries tend to suffer far more serious loss of lives than the United States due to a combination of high population density in cities with infrastructures not built to withstand the ravages of an earthquake.

Floods. Whenever unusually large amounts of water fall on dry land, or when water from oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams overflows onto dry land, the damaging result is flooding. Many people first learn that rushing water can easily cause extreme property damage and death by hearing the Old Testament story of Noah saving pairs of animals from the great deluge of forty days and nights of rain.

The worst recorded loss of life from flooding occurred in Kaifeng, China, in 1642. War was raging and rebel forces destroyed a protective sea-wall, resulting in the loss of 300,000 lives. The worst flood in the United States came as a result of a tidal surge that accompanied the September 8, 1900, Galveston Hurricane (Galveston, Texas) that took 6,000 to 8,000 lives. Another notable flood the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, floodoccurred on May 31, 1889, causing 2,209 deaths. Heavy rains caused the Lake Conemaugh Reservoir dam to fail, allowing a devastating wall of water to slam the city. Debris from damaged property added to the losses when it jammed at a bridge in the downtown area that then caught fire.

In 1993 the midwestern United States was devastated by summer-long flooding. Torrential rains caused rivers and streams to wash over their banks and damage thousands of homes and businesses. Although there were only 46 deaths attributed to the flooding, the region suffered millions of dollars in financial losses. Farming was totally disrupted, as everyone waited for the water to recede and the fields to dry out. Adding to the misery was the fact that many caskets surfaced and washed away from cemeteries located next to waterways that were out of control, reopening emotional wounds and complicating bereavement for many flood victims. All of this led to a great sense of collective solidarity, as people throughout the country assisted in a mammoth relief effort.

Hurricanes and typhoons. The terms hurricane and typhoon come from words that mean "big wind" (the West Indian word huracan ) and "great wind" (the Chinese word taifun ). As large tropical storms reach and sustain maximum wind speeds of at least 75 miles per hour, they officially become hurricanes (if occurring in the Atlantic Ocean or the eastern Pacific) or typhoons (if occurring in the western Pacific). Some of the worst storms are able to reach wind speeds in excess of 180 miles per hour and drop over 10 inches of rain in one day. Oddly, at the center of these storms is a calm area known as the eye of the storm that has relatively light winds and blue sky overhead.

Summertime is hurricane season for the United States and many nearby islands. The worst loss of lives in the Western Hemisphere came when 20,000 to 22,000 people died in Barbados, the West Indies, Martinique, and St. Eustatius, as a result of the Great Hurricane of 1780. Since 1953 storms have received names from the National Weather Service. A storm named Hurricane Mitch (October 1998), killed 11,000 people in Central America, left 2 to 3 million people homeless, and caused $5 billion in damage. Hurricane Andrew (August 1992) killed only 14 people when it ravaged southern Florida and the Gulf Coast, but it was the nation's most costly hurricane, causing $15 to $20 billion in damage. In some communities family residences sustained excessive damage because zoning rules had been ignored and the homes were not structurally able to withstand the easily foreseeable winds in that hurricane-prone area.

In September 1906, 10,000 lives were lost when a typhoon with a tsunami (tidal wave) struck Hong Kong. Typhoon Vera (September 1959) caused 4,464 deaths in Honshu, Japan. Thelma (November 1991) took 3,000 lives in the Philippines. Several thousand fishermen died in December 1949, when a typhoon caught Korea's fishing fleet in an offshore location.

Tornadoes. People often refer to tornadoes as "twisters" and know them as the tightly spiraling funnels of wind and debris that can destroy anything in their path. If they pass over water, they may form a waterspout, but generally waterspouts are less serious weather phenomena that can happen even when no storm is present. For many people who do not live in tornado-prone areas, the first knowledge of these devastating weather events often comes through media coverage or from movies. For instance, a famous big-screen twister carries a Kansas farmhouse to a mystical land on the other side of the rainbow in the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Tornadoes are often spawned during severe thunderstorms, as cold weather fronts clash with warm air systems ahead of them. They are classified on a scale known as the Fujita-Pearson scale that considers the touchdown path's length and width along with the maximum wind speed. Estimated speeds of 500 miles per hour are considered possible with the nastiest storms.

The worst single tornado event in U.S. history occurred on March 18, 1925, when Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana's Tri-State Tornado left 689 people dead and injured over 2,000. In March 1952 a two-day, six-state outbreak killed 343 people in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Another two-day event known as the Super Tornado Outbreak (April 1974) involved 146 twisters in 13 states. When it was all over, 330 people were dead and 5,484 were injuredthe most in U.S. history.

Tsunamis. Ground-changing and ground-shaking events like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides sometimes generate large water waves known as tsunamis. This is especially common when the event occurs under the sea. Tsunamis are most common in the Pacific Ocean due to the frequency of seismic activity there. In 1883 an eruption of the Krakatoa volcano created a 120-foot wave that killed over 36,000 people in neighboring Papua New Guinea. That island is clearly prone to tsunamis. In 1998 three smaller waves killed over 2,000 people.

Volcanoes. Hot gas and lava (molten rock) sometimes explosively vent from deep inside the earth. The venting comes in the form of volcanic eruptions that push the ground upward, forming hills and mountains as they spew the magma (liquid, rock fragments, and gases) from openings at their tops. In the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, the explosion could be heard 3,000 miles away and volcanic dust circled the earth.

In November 1985 the Colombian towns of Armero and Chinchina lost 25,000 persons during an eruption of Nevada de Ruiz. Italy's Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., killing thousands when it buried the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The United States has also known active volcanoes. Washington State's Mt. St. Helens, for example, erupted in May 1980, killing 60 people along with countless animals, and damaging trees over a 500-kilometer area. The large island of Hawaii has Kiluea, which has become a tourist attraction thanks to an ongoing flow of lava. The Caribbean island of Montserrat also still has an active volcano, Soufriere Hills. During the summer of 1997 its eruption killed 20 people and left two-thirds of the island uninhabitable.

More extreme phenomena. Other extremes of nature also take their toll in property damage and lost lives. The central and eastern United States experienced a heat wave during the summer of 1980 that took 10,000 lives and caused $20 billion in damage. The Blizzard of 1988 pummeled the East Coast with snow for three days, leaving 400 dead and $20 million in damage from the 5 feet of snow it dropped in many areas. Another more recent blizzard, the March 1993 Storm of the Century, left 270 people dead and caused $3 to $6 billion in damage.

Drought is another weather extreme. In addition to obvious water shortages, a lack of precipitation can lead to crop damage or loss and then unemployment among those who work in agriculture-related fields. The longest drought in U.S. history came in the 1930s, when many areas of the country were suffering through the Great Dust Bowl. John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) details the struggles that farmers commonly faced during those very difficult times.

Human Complicity in Disasters

Many disasters have other than natural roots. The interplay of humans and machines sometimes results in accidents. Faulty design and/or engineering, unsafe building practices, and ignorance of safety procedures all cause many unnecessary injuries and deaths. Worse yet, people will sometimes intentionally cause a disaster in an effort to scare, control, and/or inflict harm on others.

Aircraft incidents. On March 27, 1977, a Pan Am 747 and a KLM 747 collided on an airport runway in the Canary Islands, resulting in the worst aircraft disaster in history. There were 582 deathsall 249 on KLM and 333 of the 394 aboard Pan Am. The worst single plane incident occurred on April 12, 1985, when a Japan Air 747 crashed into a mountain in Japan520 of the 524 passengers died. The loss of another jumbo jet, an Iran Air A300 Airbus on July 3, 1988, killed 290 people. Human error was the cause: While operating in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy mistakenly identified the plane as an attacking enemy jet and shot it down.

Perhaps the most spectacular aviation disaster ever recorded on radio and film was the May 6, 1937, crash of the Hindenburg, a German zeppelin (passenger blimp). The incident happened as the blimp was about to moor at a docking mast on an airfield at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Something sparked an explosion and fire that brought the flaming ship down. In a mere matter of seconds, thirty-six people died and many others suffered burns and other injuries. The radio commentator Herbert Morrison described the incident to a stunned audience. His most memorable and quoted line was "Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here!"

Buildings and construction. Injuries and deaths often result from accidents involving structural failures. On March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam in Santa Paula, California, collapsed, killing 450 people. On June 29, 1995, the Sampoong Department Store in Seoul, Korea, collapsed, leaving 206 people dead and 910 injured. On July 18, 1981, a sky-walk collapsed during a dance being held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, killing 118 people and injuring 186. This event led to helpers offering well-documented emotional support for survivors and the family members of those lost. So did the November 17, 1999, deaths of 12 students from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. They were killed when a log pile structure that they were building for an annual pre-football game bonfire collapsed.

Ecological and environmental incidents. During the January 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iran intentionally spilled over 460 million gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf. It also dynamited and set ablaze 650 oil wells in Kuwait, making this the world's worst intentionally caused environmental disaster. On June 3, 1979, the Ixtoc 1 oil well in the Gulf of Mexico experienced an estimated spill of 140 million gallons of crude oilthe largest spill ever. Fortunately there was very low impact on the environment. On March 16, 1978, the Amaco Cadiz supertanker spilled 68 million gallons of crude oil off Portsall, France, damaging over 100 miles of coastline, making it the largest tanker spill in history. The worst U.S. event was the March 24, 1989, spill of over 10,000 gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, by the Exxon Valdez supertanker. Wildlife suffers the most when these ecocatastrophes happen.

Explosions. Coal mine explosions around the world have taken many lives. Some examples include Courriaees, France (March 10, 1906), with 1,060 deaths; Omuta, Japan (November 9, 1963), with 447 deaths; Coalbrook, South Africa (January 21, 1960), with 437 deaths; Wankle, Rhodesia (June 6, 1972), with 427 deaths; and Bihar, India (May 28, 1965), with 375 deaths. The worst explosion in the United States occurred on May 1, 1900, in Scofield, Utah, when blasting powder ignited and killed 200 people.

Fires. A waterfront fire in Chongqing, China, took 1,700 lives on September 2, 1949, making it history's worst fire. The worst fire in U.S. history occurred on December 30, 1903, at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago, Illinois, where 602 people died.

Much more widely known, however, is the November 28, 1942, fire at the Coconut Grove Nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts. That fire caused 491 deaths among a group of patrons that was heavily comprised of members of the military and their dates for the evening. Most notable there was the fact that many survivors were interviewed and helped by mental health professionals from a nearby hospital in what may have been the first documented use of disaster mental health techniques. Another major U.S. fire was the Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871, during which 50 people lost their lives and 17,450 buildings were burned. The damage estimate for that fire was $196 million.

Industrial and nuclear accidents. On December 3, 1984, a toxic gas leak occurred at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, resulting in over 2,000 deaths and 150,000 injuries. The world's worst release of radiation was on April 26, 1986, when an accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. The official death toll was 31, but estimates calculate that thousands may have died. When a partial meltdown occurred in the reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979, no lives were lost. Nevertheless, there was a major, negative, and lasting psychological impact on residents of the area.

Shipwrecks. Two of the worst losses of lives in passenger shipping occurred in China during 1948. In November, a troop carrier sank with an estimated 6,000 people onboard. Then, the following month, about 3,000 refugees were lost when their ship sank. On December 12, 1987, the ferry Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Manilaover 4,000 people died. On December 12, 1917, a steam ship collided with the ammunition ship Mont Blanc in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia, and 1,600 people died as a result of the explosion that followed.

In the United States, the worst event occurred on April 27, 1865, when the Sultana, a Mississippi River steamboat carrying Union soldiers home from two infamous Confederate prison camps at the end of the Civil War, suffered an explosion in its boiler1,547 people were killed. Another major shipping accident happened on April 16, 1947, in Texas City, when the Grand Camp caught fire. A large crowd formed to watch firefighters battle the blaze and no one realized that the ship's cargo was highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer. When it blew up, 600 people were killed by a combination of the shock waves, a small tidal wave, and several other resulting fires.

On April 15, 1912, one of the most famous accidents in shipping occurred when the British ocean liner Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg on its maiden, transatlantic voyage; over 1,500 people died. Three years later, another famous liner, the Lusitania, was sunk by a German submarine near the coast of Ireland. The deaths of 1,198 people there helped draw the United States into World War I. When the battleship Arizona and the rest of the Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was bombed on December 12, 1942, 1,177 were killed, making it the worst loss in U.S. naval history.

There is also the July 25, 1956, collision of two ocean linersthe Andrea Doria and the Stockholm off Nantucket, Massachusetts. This accident, in which 52 people died, is another disaster that produced early, well-documented emotional support for survivors.

Space exploration. Efforts to travel in space have resulted in their share of tragedies. On March 18, 1980, a Vostok rocket exploded during refueling at the Plesetsk Space Center in the former Soviet Union; 50 people were killed. The U.S. Space Shuttle program experienced its worst disaster on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger craft exploded in the air shortly after liftoff. A booster rocket fuel leak caused the explosion and fire that killed seven astronauts to their deaths just off Cape Kennedy, Florida. Many Americans, including most school-children, watched the accident on live TV because Christa McAuliffe, America's first teacher in space, was aboard. Another tragedy for the United States was the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967. Three astronauts died at Cape Kennedy when an accidental fire erupted in their space ship during a routine launch pad practice exercise.

Sports. Disasters can happen anywhere, even at recreational events. On October 20, 1982, 340 soccer fans died in a sudden crush of people all moving about at the end of a match in Moscow's Lenin Stadium. Similar problems happened at a Peru versus Argentina soccer match in Lima, Peru, on May 24, 1964, when rioting occurred after a disputed call by a referee; over 300 people died and 500 were injured. In Sincelejo, Colombia, 222 people died on January 20, 1980, when the bleachers collapsed at the town's bullring.

Terrorism. Terrorism is the use of violence in an attempt to intimidate, control, and/or punish others in hopes of advancing a political agenda. On December 12, 1988, a terrorist bomb brought down a Pan-Am flight bound for New York City. The Boeing 747 crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground. Two U.S. embassy bombings occurred on August 7, 1998, killing 243 people in Nairobi, Kenya, and 10 people in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; there were also 1,000 other people injured in these attacks.

The worst acts of terrorism on American soil came on September 11, 2001, when a coordinated group of terrorists commandeered four large commercial passenger jets and turned them into weapons of mass destruction. They crashed two of them into the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center, causing both to collapse. They crashed the third plane into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Heroic passengers on the fourth plane had gotten word of the other hijacked planes and took action that resulted in the crash of their plane in a field in western Pennsylvania. This crash was far from any intended terrorist target, although the White House was the suspected objective. Although initial estimates of those lost were 6,000 people (or more), the current death toll from these four crashes is estimated to have been closer to 3,200 people.

Another major U.S. terrorist event was the April 19,1995, truck bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children from a daycare center located in the building. In all, 221 buildings sustained damage. There had also been an earlier attack on New York's World Trade Center complexa bombing on February 26, 1993, that resulted in 6 deaths and 1,040 injuries. Lessons learned in that attack helped save many lives during the September 11, 2001, tragedy.

Terrorism has also taken the form of product tampering. In September 1982 someone laced the pain medication Tylenol with cyanide poison and placed the packages in circulation in the Chicago area, leading to 7 deaths. That incident and other copycat behavior led drug manufacturers to place safety seals on each package. Similar seals quickly became standard on many other consumable foods and beverages.

Behavior and Psychological Changes in Victims

People are almost always changed by their disaster experiences, but they need not be damaged by those experiences. Victims and relief workers who have been traumatized generally will not stop functioning, but they will react in fairly predictable ways (with some differences due to age and level of maturity). By using various crisis intervention techniques, the victims and relief workers can be triaged, briefly counseled (or referred for formal services, if needed), and returned to predisaster levels of functioning as quickly as possible.

Persons and communities struck by disaster will often experience four distinct phases of response to the disaster. First, there is a heroic phase that may even begin prior to impact and that can last up to a week afterward. During this phase people struggle to prevent loss of lives and to minimize property damage. This phase is followed by the honeymoon phase, which may last from two weeks to two months. During this phase, massive relief efforts lift spirits of survivors, and hopes for a quick recovery run high. Sadly, for most people this optimism is often short-lived and, all too soon, the disillusionment phase begins. This phase may last from several months to a year or more. Social scientists sometimes call it the second disaster, as it is the time when the realities of bureaucratic paperwork and recovery delays set in. Outside help has often come and gone and people realize that they must do more themselves. Eventually, the reconstruction phase begins. This phase may take several years as normal functioning is gradually reestablished.

There are many more specific changes that people may experience. Disasters can cause behavioral changes and regression in children. Many react with fear and show clear signs of anxiety about recurrence of the disaster event(s). Sleep disturbances are very common among children and adults and can best be handled by quickly returning to or establishing a familiar bedtime routine. Similarly, school avoidance may occur, leading to development of school phobias if children are not quickly returned to their normal routine of school attendance.

Adults often report mild symptoms of depression and anxiety. They can feel haunted by visual memories of the event. They may experience psychosomatic illnesses. Pre-existing physical problems such as heart trouble, diabetes, and ulcers may worsen in response to the increased level of stress. They may show anger, mood swings, suspicion, irritability, and/or apathy. Changes in appetite and sleep patterns are quite common. Adults, too, may have a period of poor performance at work or school and they may undergo some social withdrawal.

Middle-aged adults, in particular, may experience additional stress if they lose the security of their planned (and possibly paid-off) retirement home or financial nest egg, and/or if they are forced to pay for extensive rebuilding. Older adults will greatly miss their daily routines and will suffer strong feelings of loss from missing friends and loved ones. They may also suffer feelings of significant loss from the absence of their home or apartment, or its sentimental objects (paintings, antiques, Bibles and other spiritual items, scriptures, photo albums, and films or videotapes), which tied them to their past.

Timing of the onset of these changes varies with each person, as does duration. Some symptoms occur immediately, while others may not show until weeks later. Just about all of these things are considered normal reactions, as long as they do not last more than several weeks to a few months. The one commonality among disaster victims is that most everyone will be changed in some way by the experience, often marking time differently in its wake (speaking of what life has been like since the traumatic event).

The personal impact of disasters tends to be much worse whenever the disaster events are caused by intentionally destructive human acts than by natural causes (or pure accidents). Whenever inhumanity plays a major role in causality, survivors seem to need extra time to resolve their losses and move forward with their lives. This relates directly to the greater amount of anger involved, overexposure from repetitive media coverage, and the fact that any true sense of closure may not come until the perpetrators are found and prosecuted.

When disasters happen, the public demands answers and action. Mitigation efforts will often initiate social changes designed to prevent reoccurrences. Natural disasters prompt research to improve early warning systems and enforce sturdier construction methods. Transportation accidents trigger investigations that lead to new safety regulations, improved operating procedures, and the redesign of problematic equipment. Acts of terrorism stimulate public debate over curtailment and/or abridgement of civil liberties, often resulting legislative remedies and, in some cases, retaliatory military action.

Disaster Mental Health

Disaster mental health (DMH) is an expanding field of crisis intervention that addresses several aspects of traumatology, affecting both victims and relief workers who have experienced natural or human-caused disasters. Crisis workers strive to help people recognize, understand, and accept some of the common changes that often occur in the days, months, and years following any traumatic disaster event(s). The goal of DMH intervention is to help assure that the victims (and helpers) become survivors by doing whatever can be done to prevent long-term, negative consequences of the psychological trauma such as the development of posttraumatic stress disorder.

DMH work involves extensive use of outreach skills and simple approaches, including offering informal greetings, providing snacks/drinks, doing brief, supportive defusing interviews, to help people begin problem solving. For many people, DMH work also involves grief counseling to assist survivors as they begin to mourn their losses. For those who have experienced severe psychological trauma, formal debriefing interviews are the preferred method to begin helping people let go of the pain, face their losses, and prepare to begin moving forward with their lives.

Defusing and debriefing are two of the primary tools used in providing help. Both involve offering individuals or groups of people opportunities to talk things out in a safe and supportive atmosphere. Both are voluntary offerings made to those who are ready and willing to tell their upsetting disaster stories and learn ways to cope with the residual stress.

Defusing is the term given to the initial process during which DMH workers begin helping traumatized people talk things out. It works like taking the fuse out of a bomb (or an explosive situation), by allowing victims and workers the opportunity to ventilate about their disaster-related memories, stresses, losses, and methods of coping in a safe and supportive atmosphere. The defusing process usually involves informal and impromptu sessions that help release thoughts, feelings, and fears which might not otherwise be appropriately expressed.

Debriefing is longer and more formally structured interview process that has grown from the researcher Jeff Mitchell's 1983 Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) model. The CISD model was designed for use with first responders (including police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians), to help them overcome the emotional aftereffects of critical incidents (line-of-duty deaths). Sessions were usually held within the first twenty-four to seventy-two hours after the traumatic event, with follow-up sessions as needed. Given the nature of disasters, it is not always possible to identify all of the victims that quickly. Fortunately, the debriefing process is still beneficial, even when the sessions are held long after the event.

Disaster Preparedness and Disaster Relief

Local, state, and federal government officials play a major role in both disaster preparedness and disaster relief. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is an independent agency of the federal government that reports directly to the president. Since it was founded in 1979, FEMA workers have coordinated both the nation's planning for disasters and the mitigation efforts that are needed once they occur. States and most local communities also have emergency management agencies that take responsibility for coordinating disaster preparedness and relief efforts in their areas.

Providing relief services since 1881, the American Red Cross (ARC) has been chartered by the U.S. Congress to provide disaster relief services and it is the best group to call for initial advice about preparedness and emergency assistance. ARC workers, many of whom are volunteers, provide predisaster education programs, as well as postdisaster damage assessment, mass care sheltering and feeding, health services, and emergency assistance to families. By offering support and replacing some lost items (clothing, food, and health care items), relief efforts jump-start the recovery process.

Since 1989 ARC has taken the lead in recruiting and training volunteers to serve on DMH service teams whenever and wherever their services may be needed. The American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, several professional nursing organizations, and many other such groups help supply the needed workers.

ARC is just one of over twenty relief organizations that work together as members of local, state, and national relief efforts, including the nationally run National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD). Each local Volunteer Organization Active in Disaster (VOAD) organization has its own area(s) of specialization, including feeding, sheltering, child care, ham radio communication, and construction/repair. Representatives of VOAD member organizations hold regular meetings to facilitate planning efforts and the sharing of resources.

Relief workers often put in twelve- to fourteen-hour days, sometimes doing so for weeks at a time, and thus need to be mindful of stress management and self-care. Burnout is a serious hazard for disaster workers. The use of peer support is the best method to cope with stress. Health care professionals urge relief workers to take breaks, schedule time off, use humor, maintain a proper diet, exercise, and get generous amounts of restful sleep. Keeping a personal journal (a log of what was seen, thought, and felt) and writing a narrative at the end of the assignment often help many relief workers.

See also: Grief: Acute; Grief Counseling and Therapy; Hindenberg; Terrorism; Terrorist Attacks on America; Titanic


Dingman, Robert, ed. "Disasters and Crises: A Mental Health Counseling Perspective." Journal of Mental Health Counseling 17, no. 3 (1995).

Everly, George S. "The Role of the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) Process in Disaster Counseling." Journal of Mental Health Counseling 17, no. 3 (1995):278290.

Figley, Charles R., ed. Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1995.

Friedman, Stanford B., et al. Psychosocial Issues for Children and Families in Disasters: A Guide for the Primary Care Physician. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Publication No. SMA 95-3022. Rockville, MD: Center for Mental Health Services, 1995.

Lindemann, Erich. "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief." American Journal of Psychiatry 101 (1944):141148.

Mitchell, Jeffrey T. "When Disaster Strikes ... The Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Process." Journal of Emergency Services 8, no. 1 (January 1983):3639.

Morgan, Jane. "American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services: Implementation and Recent Developments." Journal of Mental Health Counseling 17, no. 3 (1995):291300.

Myers, Diane G. Disaster Response and Recovery: A Handbook for Mental Health Professionals. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Publication No. SMA 94-3010. Rockville, MD: Center for Mental Health Services, 1994.

Parad, Howard J., et al. "Crisis Intervention and Emergency Mental Health Care: Concepts and Principles." In H. L. P. Resnik and Harvey L. Ruben eds., Emergency Psychiatric Care: The Management of Mental Health Crises. Bowie, MD: The Charles Press, 1975.

Siporin, Max. "Disasters and Disaster Aid." In Encyclopedia of Social Work, 18th edition. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers, 1987.

Ursano, Robert J., Carol S. Fullerton, and Ann E. Norwood. "Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster: Patient Care, Community Consultation, and Preventive Medicine." Harvard Review of Psychiatry 3, no. 4 (1995):196209.

Weaver, John D. "How to Assist in the Aftermath of Disasters and Other Life Crises." In Leon VandeCreek and Thomas L. Jackson eds., Innovations in Clinical Practice: A Source Book, Volume 17. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press, 1999.

Weaver, John D. "Disaster Mental Health Services." In Linda Grobman ed., Days in the Lives of Social Workers. Harrisburg, PA: White Hat Communications, 1996.

Weaver, John D. Disasters: Mental Health Interventions. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press, 1995.

Young, Bruce H., et al. Disaster Mental Health Services: A Guidebook for Clinicians and Administrators. Menlo Park, CA: Department of Veterans Affairs, 1998.

Internet Resources

"Disasters." In the Information Please Almanac [web site]. Available from www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0001437.html.

Everly, George S., and Jeffrey T. Mitchell. "A Primer on Critical Incident Stress Management." In the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation [web site]. Available from www.icisf.org/inew_era.htm.

"NASA's Natural Disaster Reference Database." In the NASA [web site]. Available from http://ltpwww.gsfc.nasa.gov/ndrd/.

Weaver, John. "Working with Those Who Have Experienced Sudden Loss of Loved Ones." In the Internet Journal of Rescue and Disaster Medicine [web site]. Available from www.icaap.org/iuicode?

Weaver, John. "Sudden Death in Disasters and Transportation Accidents: A Guide to Survival for Family Members and Friends." In the Internet Journal of Rescue and Disaster Medicine [web site]. Available from www.icaap.org/iuicode?

Weaver, John. "Disaster Mental Health: Detailed Information." In the Disaster Mental Health [web site]. Available from http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/johndweaver.



views updated May 23 2018


Social adaptations to disaster


The word “disaster” evokes many different mental images and is used in diverse ways. In popular speech, the term is often used loosely to refer to any sudden, unexpected, or extraordinary misfortune, regardless of whether it occurs to an individual, a family or other small group, a community, a region, a nation, or the entire world.

Social scientific interest tends to center on relatively large-scale community or societal disasters— the sudden or rapidly developing events that disrupt the prevailing order of life and produce danger, injury, illness, death, loss of property, or other severe privations to large numbers of people residing within a common geographic area. Such events are produced by a variety of natural and man-made destructive agents, including earthquakes, epidemics, floods, hurricanes, tidal waves, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, explosions, fires, and wartime bombing attacks.

In formal sociological terms, a disaster may be defined as “an event, concentrated in time and space, in which a society, or a relatively self-sufficient subdivision of a society, undergoes severe danger and incurs such losses to its members and physical appurtenances that the social structure is disrupted and the fulfillment of all or some of the essential functions of the society is prevented” (Fritz 1961, p. 655). Viewed in this way, a disaster is an event that disturbs the vital functioning of a society. It affects the system of biological survival (subsistence, shelter, health, reproduction), the system of order (division of labor, authority patterns, cultural norms, social roles), the system of meaning (values, shared definitions of reality, communication mechanisms), and the motivation of the actors within all of these systems.

Disasters differ in various ways: in the nature of the precipitating agent (earthquake, explosion, etc.); in their source of origin (natural forces or human actions); in their degree of predictability, probability, and controllability; in their speed of onset (instantaneous, progressive); in their scope (focalized, diffused); and in their destructive effects on people, physical objects, and the natural environment. Human behavior differs somewhat in relation to each of these features of disaster, and also within a given disaster by spatial zones, time periods, type of involvement, nature and degree of prior preparation and training, frequency and recentness of previous disaster experience, and by differences in culture and personality. The behavioral responses of disaster survivors also vary in relation to the type of protective actions taken by responsible political authorities in the predisaster and postdisaster periods, and in accordance with the human management techniques used by the organized disaster warning, control, relief, and rehabilitation agencies. Detailed and specific comparisons of disaster behavior must take these and other distinctions into account. This article reviews the typical forms of behavior that have been discovered in a wide variety of disaster research studies.

Significance of disaster studies. Disasters provide a realistic laboratory for testing the integration, stamina, and recuperative power of large-scale social systems. They provide the social scientist with advantages that cannot be matched in the study of human behavior under more normal or stable conditions. Disasters compress vital activities into a brief time span and bring normally private behavior under public observation; social processes and linkages between social and personal characteristics thus become much more visible. Cycles and patterns of human behavior that usually span many years are enacted in a matter of hours, days, or months. Because disasters disrupt and undermine social distinctions and force people to make critical choices under similar conditions, they also provide the social scientist with a unique opportunity to study human nature and the basic processes of social interaction.

The findings of disaster research have obvious practical applications. They provide foreknowledge of the social and psychological conditions brought about by disaster: in other words they enable us to know in advance what the survivors would know afterward. Thus they provide a basis for developing more realistic and effective preparations for disaster warning, control, relief, and recovery.

Historical review of disaster research. Although there is nothing novel or modern about man’s desire to know what happens in disasters, the social scientific study of human and organizational behavior in disaster is relatively new. The first attempt to apply systematic social science concepts to the study of disaster was Samuel H. Prince’s investigation of the munitions ship explosion in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917. His pioneering study of the social effects of disaster has provided a major source of stimulating ideas and hypotheses for subsequent investigators (Prince 1920). During the period between this study and World War ii, empirical studies of disaster were conducted sporadically, primarily by single investigators using personal observation techniques or small interview and questionnaire samples. Representative examples of the research conducted during this period are Prasad’s study (1935) of rumor in the Indian earthquake of 1934, Kutak’s study (1938) of the social effects of the flood of 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, and Mira’s psychiatric observations (1939) of the effects of bombing attacks on civilians during the Spanish Civil War.

World War ii and postwar research. The World War ii bombing of British cities stimulated a large number of useful observations and individual studies by psychologists and psychiatrists. Many of these studies, together with government-sponsored research on the problems encountered in evacuating civilians from London during the blitz, have been reviewed by Titmuss (1950).

Immediately following World War ii, the United States conducted large-scale sample surveys of German and Japanese cities that had been subjected to bombing attacks (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey 1947a; 1947b). These retrospective studies were concerned primarily with indicators of morale rather than disaster behavior. Janis later reanalyzed these data, summarized the findings of other wartime studies, and developed a more systematic psychological interpretation of disaster behavior (1951).

In the 1950s, a planned program of disaster research studies emerged, stimulated and supported by various government agencies charged with responsibility for handling the hazards involved in the new arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The devastating power of these new weapons dramatized, as never before, the need for developing more adequate, systematic knowledge of the social and psychological consequences of widespread disasters. In Canada, Tyhurst (1951) conducted immediate postimpact studies of individual reactions to several disasters. In 1950, the National Opinion Research Center began a four-year program of disaster field studies in various disaster-struck communities throughout the United States (Marks & Fritz 1954). Similar field study programs were undertaken by the University of Oklahoma Research Institute (Logan & Killian 1952), by the University of Maryland Psychiatric Institute (Powell 1954), and by the University of Texas (Moore 1958).

In 1952, the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council appointed the Committee on Disaster Studies (reorganized in 1957 as the Disaster Research Group). This group supported a wide-ranging program of disaster studies in the United States and several other countries. Its 19 “Disaster Study Series” publications (1956–1963), together with numerous unpublished materials, constitute a major contribution to the social scientific literature on disasters.

The Disaster Research Group was dissolved in 1962, but its extensive bibliography and library were transferred in 1963 to the Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University, which serves as a centralized repository for disaster research information. This center has conducted numerous field studies of disasters throughout the world, including the Vaiont Dam flood of 1963 in northern Italy, the Alaskan and Japanese earthquakes of 1964, and the Chilean and San Salvador earthquakes of 1965. Particular attention has been given in these studies to organizational responses to disaster.

The volume of social scientific research studies on disaster has thus grown to large proportions. In 1961, an inventory of disaster field studies revealed a total of 114 studies of 103 different events (National Research Council 1961); these studies, together with the U.S. bombing surveys, produced nearly 22,000 interviews and questionnaires— about 15,000 obtained from individuals exposed to peacetime disasters and about 7,000 from Germans and Japanese affected by World War ii bombings. By 1965, these totals had been augmented by over 25 additional field studies and by several thousand interviews.

Common misconceptions of disaster behavior. One of the first tasks of systematic disaster research involved an act of intellectual debris clearance: the accumulated myths and distorted ideas of many centuries had to be cleared from the conceptual attic before more fundamental studies of human and organizational behavior in disasters could be made.

The traditional picture of disaster behavior consists of lurid scenes of society and human nature in the process of disintegration. Most of these simple stereotypes have not stood the test of critical research scrutiny. Contrary to the commonly held notions, disaster field studies have shown that panic is a comparatively rare form of behavior in disasters. Stricken populations do not, on the whole, become hysterical but help themselves and perform most of their own rescue and relief tasks. Only a few cases of looting have been reported. The major problem of crowd control is not so much the flight of victims from the disaster scene as the convergence of vast numbers of people from outside the disaster area. There are only isolated examples of the breakdown of moral codes. Emotional aftereffects are widespread but relatively transitory. Morale and optimism are quickly restored; indeed, the morale of the survivors may be abnormally high in some respects. Abatement of the usual social conflicts greatly strengthens social integration, and most of the social and personal behavioral pathologies of everyday life either fail to increase significantly or actually decline under disaster conditions.

Disasters do indeed pose many serious problems of human planning and management, but the actual problems discovered by research rarely coincide with those envisaged by the usual notions of disaster behavior. Moreover, the traditional stereotypes have obscured the fact that disasters produce not only disruptive and disorganizing effects but also reconstructive and regenerative human responses. Both of these perspectives must be kept in mind in any balanced treatment of the social aspects of disaster.

Disaster preparations. The minimization of social disruption requires highly organized preparations for disasters before they occur. It is difficult, however, to establish and maintain an adequate state of preparation under normal conditions, especially if there has been no recent disaster experience. Programs designed to prepare people for an uncertain future threat must compete with immediate and pressing human concerns: the day-to-day problems of earning a livelihood, protecting oneself and family from the daily dangers to life and health, and securing recognition, response, and status in relations with members of one’s personal community. Most people are not vitally concerned with problems outside the orbit of their immediate personal lives, even when there is threat of war or other disaster.

Disaster preparedness programs relying on individual initiative for developing protective measures have always failed because they ignore this overwhelming preoccupation with daily concerns and the universal human tendency to err on the side of normalcy by assuming that everything is all right until events clearly prove otherwise. As a consequence, the recognition of danger and preparation for disaster are usually postponed until it is too late to prepare well-organized precautionary and protective measures.

Warning and threat. The common tendency to deny that danger is at hand is illustrated in studies of disaster warning. Difficulties in public warning often start with the persons or agencies responsible for detecting the danger and issuing the warnings. They are usually reluctant to issue a specific warning until they are reasonably certain that danger will actually materialize. Waiting for this degree of certainty has sometimes delayed the dissemination of the warning until it is too late.

Even where the existence, nature, and time of the danger can be adequately forecast, it is difficult to secure public acceptance of warning messages. People tend to seize on any vagueness, ambiguity, or incompatibility in the warning message that enables them to interpret the situation optimistically. They search for more information that will confirm, deny, or clarify the warning message, and often they continue to interpret signs of danger as familiar, normal events until it is too late to take effective precautions.

Disaster impact. When danger is recognized as imminent and personal, people seek safety or escape, and their behavior is generally adaptive. Rather than engaging in irrational acts, which increase the danger, they usually take action to protect themselves and their associates. The success of their actions depends to a large extent upon the possibilities available in the situation and the adequacy and accuracy of information that they possess.

Flight is one means of escaping danger, but it should not be equated with panic. It is more often orderly and goal-directed than disorderly or panic-stricken, and it is often the only rational choice if one is to survive.

Even during violent impacts, most people continue to be concerned about the safety of other people in their immediate surroundings and the welfare of their family members. The family group is a central object of orientation during the impact period and throughout all phases of the emergency.

During and immediately after impact, people tend to define the situation in terms of what is happening to themselves and their immediate surroundings and to think of it as something happening only there. This tendency to underestimate the scope and destructiveness of the disaster makes for considerable variability in the initial behavior of disaster-struck populations; and it helps to account for the seemingly chaotic, confused, and conflicting behavioral patterns that the outside observer witnesses in the immediate postimpact period.

Postimpact emergency. The most significant problems of behavior in the immediate postimpact period derive from social disorganization and uncoordinated action rather than from irrational individual behavior or helplessness of the survivors. Many, if not most, of the immediate tasks of rescue and relief are handled informally by the disaster survivors before the arrival of outside aid. however, much of this informal activity is sporadic and unsystematic. The separate and independent actions of many thousands of people and small groups, each trying to cope with the disaster in its own way, often produces duplication of effort or conflicting patterns of action. They constitute a “mass assault” on the problems of disaster that frequently accomplishes the essential tasks but with considerable inefficiency of effort.

A persistent source of uncoordinated activity found in all disasters arises from anxiety over missing family members and friends. Within moments after impact, survivors who are separated from family members or other intimates begin a desperate search for them. These independent and separate search activities by large numbers of people produce conflicting patterns of action and often interfere with the performance of community-oriented tasks.

Separation anxiety is sometimes an important problem for personnel who have important official disaster responsibilities. As Killian (1952) has noted, people are confronted with “role conflicts” in choosing between family duties and their more formal social roles. Most people quickly resolve the conflict in favor of loyalty first to intimates, and only then turn their attention to larger social-group loyalties. For people with clearly defined disaster jobs, however, the conflict may persist and cause considerable personal stress unless special provisions are made to assure them of the location and condition of their families.

Convergence behavior. A central problem of coordination and control in disasters derives not from the victim population but from the informal, spontaneous “convergence behavior” (Fritz & Mathewson 1957) of persons living outside the disaster area. Shortly after impact, thousands of persons begin to converge on the disaster area and on first-aid stations, hospitals, relief centers, and communication centers near the area. Along with this movement of persons, incoming messages of anxious inquiry and offers of help from all parts of the nation and from foreign countries overload communication facilities; and tons of unsolicited equipment and supplies of clothing, food, bedding, and other materials begin to arrive.

This convergence action, which continues for days and weeks following a disaster, seriously congests transportation and communication facilities and hampers the administration of organized rescue, medical, emergency relief, and rehabilitation programs. It graphically demonstrates that the people affected by disaster are not confined to the immediate geographical area of destruction, death, or injury. All persons who are related to, or who identify themselves with, persons and organizations in the stricken area are also affected. Thus the effective unit of disaster management is usually national in scope, even when the primary sufferers are in a single community.

Problems of disaster agencies. Various problems of coordination and control stem not from public responses to disaster but from inadequacies in the plans, organization, and operations of formal disaster agencies. Disaster plans are often too limited in scope, both functionally and geographically, to provide the requisite coordination and integration of organizational actions. Conflicts in authority sometimes arise because there is an absence of an agreed-upon, understood division of labor among different groups and agencies concerning which official or agency has the authority to make decisions. Duplicating or conflicting agency actions frequently occur because the disaster management authorities have failed to establish centralized mechanisms for coordinating requests for equipment and supplies; distributing patients among hospitals; pooling casualty and survivor information; or for screening, organizing, and using large numbers of untrained volunteers.

Much of the confusion and lack of coordination in the rescue, relief, and rehabilitation efforts results from the lack of systematic procedures for maintaining a central strategic overview of the disaster, so that leadership, controls, and resources can be applied in the places where they are most critically needed. Lack of coordination also stems from the natural human tendency to feel a great sense of urgency to get something done to help the victims, which makes taking time to communicate and coordinate decisions seem a luxury. Under stress it is also difficult to exercise the more complex intellectual processes such as looking ahead and thinking about the indirect consequences of a decision.

Communication is often inadequate, partly because of the destruction of communication facilities but more generally because of improper use of these facilities. Finally, many of the problems of disaster management result from insensitivity to the changes in the structure, values, and prevailing climate of opinion among the victims during the various postdisaster phases, resulting in a lack of fit between the rather different conceptions of need held by relief organizations and by those whom they are trying to help.

Social adaptations to disaster

The great significance of behavioral problems in disaster has, understandably, caused many observers to overlook the fact that disasters produce many therapeutic effects on social systems. The sharing of a common threat to survival and the widespread suffering produced by disaster usually result in a dramatic increase in social solidarity and a temporary breakdown of pre-existing social and economic distinctions. This newly developed solidarity is of major significance in facilitating both social and personal recuperation. It resolves pre-existing personal and social conflicts; prevents or ameliorates the usual disorganized responses to trauma, loss, and privation; reduces the amount of self-aggressive and antisocial behavior; and motivates people to devote their energies to socially regenerative tasks.

Evidence supporting the existence of these therapeutic results during the integrative phase of disaster may be found in many different accounts and reports, both past and present, wartime and peacetime. In general, the findings can be summarized as follows: (1) injured disaster victims and their families are unusually calm, quiet, undemanding, and thoughtful of other people; (2) ethnic and minority group differences tend to disappear; (3) families tend to develop greater internal solidarity; (4) social relationships tend to be strengthened, not only with kin and extended family but with all survivors; (5) disaster sufferers report a relatively low sense of deprivation when comparing their losses with others; (6) there are frequent cases of remission of pre-existing neurotic and psychosomatic symptoms; (7) there is a decrease in admissions to mental hospitals and to psychological outpatient clinics; (8) the suicide rate declines; (9) homicides and crimes against the person show a downward trend; and (10) the verified cases of theft, looting, profiteering, and other forms of exploitation and antisocial behavior are quantitatively insignificant when compared with actions aimed at mutual aid, restoration, and reintegration.

These integrative effects of disaster apparently provide a major stimulus for rapid restoration and social reconstruction. Virtually all modern disaster-struck communities and nations have not only been quickly restored, but in many cases they have experienced an “amplified rebound,” in which the society is carried far beyond its predisaster levels of solidarity, productivity, and capacity for growth. Likewise, historical analyses of wars and other large disasters usually have emphasized their legacy of positive social change.

It is obvious that most disasters produce some types of relatively persistent social change. however, the exact nature of these long-run changes, and the process by which they occur in various societies (both developed and underdeveloped), under varying disaster conditions, is still imperfectly understood. The study of the long-term effects of disaster is a major area for future systematic research.

General implications of research findings

Disasters produce a new and different referential framework within which people perceive and judge their experiences. The recurrent crises and accidents of everyday life tend to be isolated, random events that produce private human troubles and suffering but do not induce changes in the organization of society. In contrast, disasters are sufficiently concentrated in time and place to pose a clear, easily perceivable threat to social survival. They affect all persons indiscriminately, and thereby produce a temporary breakdown in hierarchical status distinctions. The reference changes from “Only I have suffered” to “All of us have suffered; we are all in it together.” Danger, loss, and suffering become public, rather than private, phenomena. Disasters thus lead to social remedy and social change, rather than requiring the individual or small group to bear the burden of readjustment to an intact, unchanged society.

The social disorganization that occurs in disaster is essentially a disruption of the complex structure of social differentiations and culturally defined communication networks of secondary group life. Except momentarily, disaster does not disorganize primary group life. On the contrary, this is strengthened, becomes more pristine, and is more widely based than in ordinary social life. The quality of interaction throughout the entire community of sufferers approximates more closely the characteristics of intimate, informal interaction set forth in the concept of the primary group.

This capacity of human societies under severe stress to contract from a highly elaborated set of secondary group organizations to a kind of universal primary group existence is probably their central, built-in protective mechanism. It helps to account for the fact that nations and communities typically demonstrate amazing toughness and resiliency in coping with the destructive effects of disaster and unusual speed in restoring and regenerating more complex forms of social life.

If disaster studies have demonstrated nothing else, they have shown that man is a highly adaptive social animal when he is directly confronted with clear challenges to his continued existence. He has survived every conceivable form of disaster in the past, and, short of total annihilation, he is likely to do so in the future.

Charles E. Fritz

[See alsoCollective Behavior; Mass Phenomena.]


Baker, George W.; and Chapman, Dwight W. (editors) 1962 Man and Society in Disaster. New York: Basic Books.

Barton, Allen H. 1963 Social Organization Under Stress: A Sociological Review of Disaster Studies. Disaster Research Group, Disaster Study No. 17. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

Brownlee, Aleta 1931 Disasters and Disaster Relief. Volume 5, pages 161–166 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Disasters and Disaster Relief. 1957 American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 309:1–228. → The entire issue is devoted to disasters.

Form, William H.; and Nosow, Sigmund N. 1958 Community in Disaster. New York: Harper.

Fritz, Charles E. 1960 Some Implications From Disaster Research for a National Shelter Program. Pages 139–156 in National Research Council, Disaster Research Group, Symposium on Human Problems in the Utilization of Fallout Shelters. Disaster Study No. 12. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

Fritz, Charles E. 1961 Disaster. Pages 651–694 in Robert K. Merton and Robert A. Nisbet (editors), Contemporary Social Problems. New York: Harcourt.

Fritz, Charles E.; and Marks, E. S. 1954 The NORC Studies of Human Behavior in Disaster. Journal of Social Issues 10, no. 3:26–41.

Fritz, Charles E.; and Mathewson, J. H. 1957 Convergence Behavior in Disasters: A Problem in Social Control. Committee on Disaster Studies, Disaster Study No. 9. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

Fritz, Charles E.; and Williams, Harry B. 1957 The Human Being in Disasters: A Research Prospective. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 309:42–51.

Human Adaptation to Disaster. 1957 Human Organization 16, no. 2. → The entire issue is devoted to disaster research.

Human Behavior in Disaster: A New Field of Social Research. 1954 Journal of Social Issues 10, no. 3. → The entire issue is devoted to disaster research.

IklÉ, Fred C. 1958 The Social Impact of Bomb Destruction. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

Instituut Voor Sociaal Onderzoek van het Nederlandse Volk 1955 Studies in Holland Flood Disaster 1953. 4 vols. Amsterdam: The Institute; Washington: Committee on Disaster Studies of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

James, William 1911 On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake. Pages 207–226 in William James, Memories and Studies. New York: Longmans.

Janis, Irving L. 1951 Air War and Emotional Stress: Psychological Studies of Bombing and Civilian Defense. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Killian, Lewis M. 1952 The Significance of Multiple-group Membership in Disaster. American Journal of Sociology 57:309–314.

Killian, Lewis M. 1956 An Introduction to Methodological Problems of Field Studies in Disasters. Committee on Disaster Studies, Disaster Study No. 8. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

Kutak, Robert I. 1938 Sociology of Crises: The Louisville Flood of 1937. Social Forces 17:66–72.

Logan, Leonard; and Killian, Lewis M. 1952 A Study of the Effect of Catastrophe on Social Disorganization. Technical Memorandum No. ORO-T-194. Unpublished, mimeographed manuscript, Operations Research Office, Chevy Chase, Md.

Marks, E. S.; and Fritz, Charles E. 1954 Human Reactions in Disaster Situations. 3 vols. Unpublished report, National Opinion Research Center, Univ. of Chicago. → Available as U.S. Armed Services Technical Information Agency Document No. AD-107594.

Mira, E. 1939 Psychiatric Experiences in the Spanish War. British Medical Journal 1:1217–1220.

Moore, Harry E. 1958 Tornadoes Over Texas: A Study of Waco and San Angelo in Disaster. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

Moore, Harry E. et al. 1963 Before the Wind: A Study of the Response to Hurricane Carla. Disaster Research Group, Disaster Study No. 19. Washington: National Academy of Sciences–National Research Council.

National Research Council, Disaster Research Group 1961 Field Studies of Disaster Behavior: An Inventory. Disaster Study No. 14. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

Powell, John W. 1954 An Introduction to the Natural History of Disaster. Unpublished manuscript, Univ. of Maryland Psychiatric Institute (Baltimore).

Prasad, Jamuna 1935 The Psychology of Rumour: A Study Relating to the Great Indian Earthquake of 1934. British Journal of Psychology 26:1–15.

Prince, Samuel H. 1920 Catastrophe and Social Change: Based Upon a Sociological Study of the Halifax Disaster. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Quarantelli, E. L. 1954 The Nature and Conditions of Panic. American Journal of Sociology 60:267–275.

Rayner, Jeannette F. 1957 Studies of Disasters and Other Extreme Situations: An Annotated Selected Bibliography. Human Organization 16, no. 2:30–40.

Schelsky, Helmut (1953)1955 Wandlungen der deutschen Familie in der Gegenwart. 3d enl. ed. Stuttgart (Germany): Enke.

Titmuss, Richard M. 1950 Problems of Social Policy. London: Longmans; H.M. Stationery Office.

Tyhurst, J. S. 1951 Individual Reactions to Community Disaster: The Natural History of Psychiatric Phenomena. American Journal of Psychiatry 107:764–769.

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U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey 1947b The Effects of Strategic Bombing on Japanese Morale. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Wolfenstein, Martha 1957 Disaster: A Psychological Essay. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.


views updated May 21 2018


By the end of the nineteenth century in America, disasters occupied a prominent place in both mass media and the popular imagination, especially for those flocking to the cities. As Carl Smith notes in Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief, "The increasing organization of human activity in cities was so repeatedly punctuated by major disruptions that disorder itself seemed to be one of the defining qualities of urban culture" (p. 1).

Newspaper publishers sought to increase circulation with huge banner headlines announcing the news of floods, fires, and volcanic eruptions all around the world. Quite simply, narratives of misfortune sold papers. Not only newspapers but also important periodicals like Harper's and Atlantic Monthly ran major feature articles following disasters, complete with eyewitness accounts and often with graphic illustrations and photographs. In the case of those major disasters that instantly caught public attention—like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 or the 1912 sinking of the Titanic—publishers rushed whole books into print, often in a matter of months or even weeks, seeking to profit from the widespread and seemingly insatiable interest in these events.

Public curiosity about disasters eventually led to the development of new forms of mass entertainment. At New York's Coney Island amusement park, pleasure seekers eagerly experienced a variety of disaster reenactments, from the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) flood of 1889 to the Galveston (Texas) hurricane of 1900. Such "faux disasters" as those at Coney Island allowed people to escape the monotony of urban industrial life and at the same time subtly suggest that the effects of disaster could be minimized, managed, even mastered. In Ted Steinberg's words, "Perhaps no better way existed for coming to grips with the anxiety spawned by the spate of turn-of-the-century disasters than to schedule a trial run at apocalypse" (p. 3). And these spectacles were clearly big business. Andrea Stulman Dennett and Nina Warnke have called Coney Island "one of America's first permanent commitments to commercial leisure," noting that between 1897 and 1904 the amusement park was transformed from a "scandalous and unsavory place" to a "technologically sophisticated mass-entertainment center" (p. 101). Disaster attractions had wide appeal, drawing patrons from different social and economic classes and feeding the burgeoning amusements industry.


Even as disasters were becoming the source of new forms of entertainment, they would soon become the subject of serious academic study, not only in the scientific and engineering communities but among those scholars developing the modern social sciences. The first attempt to derive a social theory explaining human response to disaster was a 1920 Columbia University sociology doctoral dissertation by Samuel Henry Prince, later published in several different editions

DISASTERS, 1870–1920

Chicago Fire: On Sunday evening, 8 October 1871, a fire began somewhere near the O'Leary barn in Chicago. Driven by strong winds, the fire soon burned out of control. The so-called Burnt District comprised an area four miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, or about two thousand acres. More than 100,000 people were left homeless. On the same night, the deadliest forest fire ever, in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killed nearly twenty-five hundred people and destroyed an area the size of Rhode Island.

Boston Fire: On 12 November 1872 a fire in the business district of Boston destroyed almost 800 buildings and caused $75 million in damage. Among those who suffered in the fire was James R. Osgood, publisher of the Atlantic Monthly and of many important American authors. Osgood's warehouse was destroyed, and a year later all of his remaining assets (including the original plates of famous books) were liquidated.

Johnstown Flood: On the afternoon of 31 May 1889 residents of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, were inundated by a wave of water when the poorly maintained South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River failed due to overtopping, killing thousands.

Galveston Hurricane: On 8 September 1900 a hurricane with winds of 145 mph and a storm surge of almost 16 feet killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people in the Texas city of Galveston, whose population at the time was around 37,000.

San Francisco Earthquake: At 5:00 A.M. on 18 April 1906 San Francisco was jolted by an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault. The quake, which lasted a minute, is estimated to have been about 8.25 on the later-developed Richter scale. Although many poorly constructed buildings were destroyed in the quake, even greater destruction occurred from many fires that ignited after the earthquake. The earthquake and fires together left 250,000 people homeless and caused $350 million of property damage. The actual death toll remains unknown.

Cherry Mine Disaster: On 13 November 1909, 259 men died in one of the worst coal-mining disasters ever. At Cherry, just north of La Salle, Illinois, a fire started when hay used to feed mules was stored too close to an open torch inside the mine. The disaster eventually led to the adoption of workers' compensation laws.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Near closing time on 25 March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire, killing nearly 150 of the 500 workers, mostly young women. Many of the workers were immigrants. Workers were trapped, unable to reach safety, by locked doors and broken fire escapes. Unable to escape the burning building, many leapt to their deaths on the sidewalks below, to the horror of passersby.

Sinking of the Titanic : At almost midnight on 14 April 1912 the Titanic, the largest ship ever built, hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Because the ship was considered "unsinkable," there were lifeboats for only about half of the twenty-two hundred passengers and crew. Neither the crew nor the passengers had any training in how to use the lifeboats, and only about seven hundred survivors were rescued the next morning by a passing ship.

Eastland Disaster: On 24 July 1915 the passenger ship Eastland, docked in downtown Chicago, rolled over, killing over eight hundred passengers within just a few feet of the shore. Most of the passengers were young employees of the Western Electric Company who had received tickets for a pleasure cruise on Lake Michigan. The passenger death toll on the Eastland actually exceeded the non-crew death toll of the Titanic disaster.

Halifax Explosion: On the morning of 6 December 1917 two warships, one of them a French ship carrying thousands of pounds of munitions, collided in fog in Halifax Harbor in Nova Scotia. The resulting explosions killed more than two thousand people and injured nine thousand. It destroyed 256 acres along the waterfront and left more than 750 families homeless.

Influenza Pandemic: In 1918 and 1919 influenza swept the world, killing more people than the Great War had killed. Sailors and soldiers returning home apparently brought the influenza with them to America, where approximately 675,000 died of the disease.

as Catastrophe and Social Change (Fischer, p. 9). Prince, who studied the 1917 Halifax (Nova Scotia) Harbor explosion, which he had witnessed, argued that disasters bring about both social and technological change. Prince was particulary concerned with how communities tried to recover from disasters and how disaster could exacerbate class differences. Thus the study of disasters begins with considerations of how such events change the communities that experience them.

Prince's work is generally seen as the beginning of a field of social science called "disaster studies" (or even "disastrology"), which emerged in full force in the late 1940s after World War II, the Holocaust, and the bombing of Hiroshima. Thus, much of what is known about the catastrophes of 1870–1920 has been filtered through the lens of later theories. But even long before Prince's work, it is clear that people understood catastrophic events in a number of ways—as failures of technology or of moral action or as the wrath of a vengeful God. Disasters often affected communities as a war would, leaving them in shock and highlighting vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

One can easily construct a timeline of American events between 1870 and 1920, all of which were widely viewed by contemporaries and later by historians as "disasters." Especially around the turn of the century, as the print media became a more powerful force in American life, these events amounted to just about one major news story a year. Coverage of these events not only sold newspapers but also provided inspiration for both serious literature and popular culture texts and performances.


Popular writers used actual disasters as settings for novels and short stories, which often explored how ordinary people react in times of extraordinary trauma. Perhaps the most famous of these works was the Reverend Edward Payson Roe's 1872 melodramatic novel Barriers Burned Away, which became a best-seller for the fledgling publisher Dodd, Mead after two other publishers turned it down. Roe, who had served as an army chaplain during the Civil War, used the Chicago fire of 1871 as the backdrop for a novel that espoused Roe's own Christian democratic ideals. The plot follows an earnest, religious young man from the country, Dennis Fleet, who falls in love with Christine, the haughty, city-bred daughter of his wealthy and ambitious employer, the art dealer Baron Ludolph. As a result of the catastrophic events of the night of fire—in just one chapter, Dennis witnesses the death of Baron Ludolph, saves Christine from being ravished by a "ruffian" who had "planted his big grimy hand in the delicate frill of her night-robe" (p. 398), and steals a pair of boots for "her tender little feet" from a deserted shoe shop (p. 400)—Dennis persuades Christine to renounce her life of materialism and to accept his Christian values. The message of the novel is unmistakably heavy-handed, and the style is somewhat overwrought and the plot improbable in places—for example, as the fire bears down upon them, Dennis tells Christine: "I give you just five minutes in which to make your toilet and gather a light bundle of your choicest valuables. Dress in woolen throughout and dress warmly" (p. 396). Still, Roe's narration often manages to capture well the chaos and frenzy of the disaster. The events are portrayed, quite simply, as both terrifying and disorienting. But more important than any attempts at a realistic rendering of the events is the way the fire serves the novelist as a metaphor for spiritual redemption and the source of new life. The fire has a cleansing effect. All the class and religious differences that had separated the two characters are swept away (or rather, "burned away") in the conflagration, and even as she loses everything she has prized before, Christine is transformed spiritually. The novel emphasizes the idea that catastrophe is both a collective and an individual experience, bringing out the best and worst in human nature. Roe also makes it clear that even as Dennis's piety triumphs over Christine's materialism, the city is still and perhaps inevitably a dangerous place, where different classes of people with different values and morals lived alongside each other—in short, a place that "could burst into uncontrollable flame at any moment" (Smith, p. 63). Strangely, the survivors' experience could be simultaneously ennobling and debasing.


If post–Civil War melodrama seemed an ideal literary medium to explore the consequences and effects of disaster, by the turn of the century the new medium of film proved ideally suited to portraying both actual disasters and the kinds of disaster re-creations popularized at Coney Island. In the history of films in this era one sees the evolution of both documentary and dramatic films based on disaster. Reality came first. The majority of the films released in the United States between 1897 and 1903 were of the "actuality genre" (Dennet and Warnke, p. 107). Film footage by Edison Company photographers of the Mount Pelée eruption in Martinique was released in 1902. Film also captured the effects of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, and footage from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was edited into a short documentary called San Francisco: Aftermath of Earthquake. These early documentary films allowed people to see for themselves the devastation they had read about in the newspapers. While some films relied on footage taken of the actual disaster to create a sense of reality and immediacy, others used re-creations, like Biograph's 1905 film Fighting the Flames.

After about 1910, reality began to give way to fictional dramas, especially fictional stories of individuals caught up in either real or fictional calamities. Still, the lines between fact and fiction were often blurred. Dorothy Gibson, an actress with the Éclair Moving Picture Company in New Jersey, was a first-class passenger on the Titanic when it sank in April 1912. Just a month later Éclair released a fictionalized version of Gibson's survival called Saved from the Titanic. In the film, written by Gibson herself, the character uses flashbacks to tell her parents the story of her adventure. The parents' horror is heightened by the knowledge that their daughter's future husband is a seaman, and the threat of death at sea in some future disaster remains. While disaster survivors were showcased in some films, the heroes who tried to save the victims of disaster took center stage in others. In films made by both Biograph and Edison in the first two decades of the twentieth century, firefighters often emerged as the heroes (Dennett and Warnke, p. 109). Already present in these early films are the basic plotlines of the classic Hollywood blockbuster disaster film: individuals tested by the challenge of a collective catastrophe; distinct lives about to be entangled in calamity; personal sacrifice that creates a sense of community. This narrative formula was just waiting for mid-twentieth-century technological advances to make realistic special effects possible. And perhaps because there were very real limits on the extent to which early filmmakers could re-create disaster—without sound, without color, without sophisticated filmediting techniques—they tended to focus even more than later filmmakers would on the human and individual dimensions of disaster.


Why disasters occur and whether they can be prevented became important questions during this period and often shaped the disaster narratives that emerged from these events. Writers often responded to disasters initially with a range of emotions that reflected the various stages a community might go through as it coped with a disaster and attempted to recover from it over a longer period of time. A fifteen-line poem titled "Chicago," written by Bret Harte (1836–1902), who at the time of the fire in 1871 had already established a reputation based on his local color stories and sketches, illustrates some of these emotions. The reader is reminded of Chicago's former glory—"she who but yesterday stood alone" (l. 3)—and asked to consider what remains of this "shattered throne" (l. 2). The second stanza reflects both on how quickly Chicago had grown up out of the land and how quickly the fire had destroyed it:

Like her own prairies by some chance seed sown,
Like her own prairies in one brief day grown;
Like her own prairies in one fierce night mown.

(Ll. 7–9)

The imagery here forces the reader to see the disaster not as the result of human failure but of the whim of nature. Harte moves from this image to the idea that the world will respond to Chicago, to "the cry for help that makes her kin to all" (l. 12), and finally to the idea that this support from the wider world will be more than mere sustenance: "with wan finger she may feel / The silver cup hid in the proffered meal" (ll. 13–14). The poem represents the cycle that any community affected by disaster might encounter, from glory to desolation, to an outpouring from other communities, to help, and to the hope of rebuilding. By 1893 Chicago had rallied sufficiently to defeat Washington, D.C., New York, and St. Louis for the right to host the World's Columbian Exposition.

While there were not necessarily more or even deadlier natural disasters during this era than there had been at earlier periods in history (or would be later on), the effects of the disasters that did occur were compounded by several demographic changes. Not only was the nation's overall population continually increasing, there also were significant shifts to crowded urban centers. In general, people demonstrated a willingness to live and work in places where the risks of disaster were relatively high. The development of large-scale transportation systems and large mechanized factories similarly increased the chances that a disaster involving large numbers of people would occur. Then too, there was often little if any government intervention to prevent or minimize community risk before disasters occurred. Developments in mass communications, along with higher literacy rates, meant that more people were more likely to learn the details about disasters that occurred elsewhere, often far away. And the development of photographic processes and the ability to reprint photographs meant that people would be able to witness, albeit secondhand and two-dimensionally, the aftermath of disaster. Even people not affected directly by disaster learned quickly and in detail about calamity in other communities. As both verbal and visual disaster narratives were told and retold, people began to see not only patterns of similarity but also the larger implications of these events.

Technological disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 and the sinking of the Titanic resulted in extensive government inquiries, and narratives about these events often focused on assigning blame. But natural disasters posed a somewhat more difficult problem to analyze and explain. While certainly many of these disasters could have been mitigated, even just by recognizing the dangers and preparing more thoroughly for them, ultimately nature remains a force beyond human control, a fact that can paradoxically either reassure or terrify a community. Historians have noted that in many instances the business community worked hard to downplay the seriousness of natural disasters and to emphasize the "accidental" (and thus both unpredictable and unpreventable) aspect of the disaster. In one sense disaster was simply "normalized." The aftermath of disaster often involved creating a narrative of events that would elicit enough sympathy to secure much-needed outside aid while protecting the city's image as a good place to do business. As Steinberg points out, in the aftermath of the Charleston earthquake of 1886, both business and religious leaders sought to convince people not to see the disaster as "punishment for human wickedness" but simply as "the result of Charleston's particular location" (p. 14). Shifting the focus away from the possibility of divine retribution was especially urgent when large segments of the population there, especially the African American working class, had taken to the streets, crying and praying for God's mercy. Rather than engage in prayer, people were encouraged to return to work as soon as possible and to begin the rebuilding process. Receiving aid was often linked directly to how hard a person was willing to work. The inclination of the poor and the uneducated to see the hand of God in any disaster makes perfect sense, though, when in almost every major disaster, whether natural or technological, the poor were likely to suffer disproportionately.

In most disasters, stories of heroism received much attention in the media, but oral histories preserve some of the grimmer and more gruesome aspects of calamity. The survivors' accounts of the Galveston hurricane of 1900, where as many as eight thousand people may have died in a single night, make it clear that disaster survivors faced extraordinary and overwhelming circumstances. Establishing order was obviously a priority, and looting, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes for profit, was always a problem. One survivor noted that "if you were caught stooping you might be shot," recounting a story about a man discovered with his pockets full of fingers and ears, having clearly stolen jewelry off the corpses in the most efficient manner. "He would have been shot," the survivor observes, "but his wife was pregnant and she begged for him. So they didn't shoot him" (Greene and Kelly, p. 178). What also emerges from the survivors is the sense of shock that pervades a community after a major disaster. As one observer noted, it was a month before "the people came out of the daze in Galveston and they started to rebuild" (Greene and Kelly, p. 161).

The business community often seized on disaster as an opportunity to rebuild on a much grander scale. Kevin Rozario has explored the "surprising relations between disaster, capitalism, and urban development" (p. 75), noting that the "rhythm of ruin and renewal" (p. 79) was already part of American culture by the late nineteenth century, when modern capitalism seemed to thrive on "creative destruction." Rozario notes that while individual owners rarely welcome destruction, it "liberates and recycles capital that has 'ossified' in fixed structures, thus clearing space for new development and opening up new investment opportunities" (p. 81). In a strange twist, what might hurt the individual capitalist in the short term actually benefits the larger capitalist economy in the long term. The rhetoric that emerged from calamitous events was usually rife with glowing predictions of future greatness. As one writer noted after the Johnstown flood in 1889: "In ten years Johnstown will be one of the prettiest and busiest cities in the world, and nothing can prevent it. The streets will be widened and probably made to start from a common centre, something after the fashion of Washington City" (Johnson, p. 389). At the same time, in the rebuilding frenzy the business community often downplayed or ignored significant problems that may have exacerbated the disaster. The most important case study here would be the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Business leaders tended to emphasize the fire rather than the earthquake, since fire seemed a much more manageable threat than earthquake. While admittedly the fire caused more actual property damage, this emphasis caused people to overlook some very real seismic dangers, in particular, the danger of building on landfill. Steinberg argues that the business community engaged in a "conspiracy of seismic silence" (p. 36) well into the 1920s, to the eventual detriment of communities all along the West Coast, most of which failed to take adequate precautions.

Finally, one of the most enduring legacies of this period may be the expectation that communities facing disaster can always expect help from the out-side. As the Red Cross created a program of disaster response and relief, community leaders and even ordinary individuals began to expect consistent aid in times of disaster (Popkin, p. 104). Eventually the local, state, and federal governments began to assume responsibility for disaster relief. The overwhelming response of people outside the affected community may well have encouraged people to continue living and working in high-risk areas and to rebuild after disaster rather than relocate to someplace less risky. In short, the determination to rebuild in the face of disaster became both an integral part of the national character and a predictable element of disaster narratives.

See alsoChicago; Diseases and Epidemics; San Francisco


Primary Works

Harte, Bret. "Chicago." Every Saturday, 28 October 1871, p. 426.

Roe, Edward Payson. Barriers Burned Away. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1872.

Secondary Works

Biel, Stephen, ed. American Disasters. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Dennett, Andrea Stulman, and Nina Warnke. "Disaster Spectacles at the Turn of the Century." Film History 4, no. 2 (1990): 101–111.

Fischer, Henry W., III. Response to Disaster: Fact versus Fiction and Its Perpetuation; The Sociology of Disaster. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994.

Gilbert, Claude. "Studying Disaster: Changes in the Main Conceptual Tools." In What Is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question, edited by E. L. Quarantelli, pp. 11–18. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Greene, Casey Edward, and Shelly Henley Kelly. Through a Night of Horrors: Voices from the 1900 Galveston Storm. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2000.

Johnson, Willis Fletcher. History of the Johnstown Flood. Philadelphia: Edgewood, 1889.

Kirby, Andrew, ed. Nothing to Fear: Risk and Hazards in American Society. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990.

Popkin, Roy S. "The History and Politics of Disaster Management in the United States." In Nothing to Fear: Risks and Hazards in American Society, edited by Andrew Kirby, pp. 101–129. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1990.

Prince, Samuel. Catastrophe and Social Change, Based upon a Sociological Study of the Halifax Disaster. New York: Columbia University, 1920.

Quarantelli, E. L., ed. What Is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Rozario, Kevin. "What Comes down Must Go Up: Why Disasters Have Been Good for American Capitalism." In American Disasters, edited by Stephen Biel. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Smith, Carl. Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nancy Morrow


views updated Jun 11 2018


Disasters are sudden, large-scale events that result in substantial numbers of deaths and injuries or severe economic losses. Natural disasters, the subject of this article, are disasters that are not precipitated by human agency. A disaster occurs when vulnerable people are severely impacted by a hazard in a way that recovery is unlikely without external aid. Vulnerability is a function of a group's socioeconomic condition; the poor are more vulnerable than the rich.

Deaths and Injuries

According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), a total of 39,073 people were reported killed by disasters in 2001. This figure is lower than the decade's annual average of around 62,000. Earthquakes proved to be the world's deadliest disasters, accounting for over half the year's toll. Over the decade, however, hydrometeorological hazards have claimed 71 percent of all lives lost to disasters.

From 1992–2001, countries of Low Human Development (LHD) have accounted for just one-fifth of the total number of disasters, but over half of all disaster fatalities. On average 13 times more people die per reported disaster in LHD countries than in countries of high human development. In 2001, a total of 170 million people were reported affected by disasters (IFRC 2002).

Economic Losses

In the 10 years ending in 2001, economic losses from natural disasters averaged nearly $580 billion a year. In real terms, this is a 7.7 fold increase in losses from the decade of the 1960s. Because of the relative size of developed-and developing-world incomes, the per capita impact of the economic losses was 20 times greater in the developing countries. According to a 2000 study by the World Bank, between 1990 and 1998, 94 percent of the world's major natural disasters and 97 percent of all natural disaster-related deaths occurred in developing countries.

The staggering total of losses in the developing world is a consequence of the vulnerability of low income countries to natural hazards. The cost of disasters to developing countries extends beyond the immediate impact on the poor. Studies indicate that natural disaster losses can eliminate economic growth. "The escalation of severe disaster events triggered by natural hazards and related technological and environmental disasters are increasingly posing a substantive threat to both sustainable development and poverty-reduction initiatives" (UN, ISDR, p. 3).

Future Trends

Natural disaster losses are forecast to increase dramatically during the first 50 years of the twenty-first century. The global cost of natural disasters is anticipated to exceed $300 billion annually (in 2000 dollars) by the year 2050–a five-fold increase over the 1990s. Two broad demographic trends directly contribute to the increasing losses from natural hazards in the developing world: the increase in population and the concentration of population in large cities. World population will likely increase by 2 billion persons between 2000 and 2025, and by a further billion by 2050, almost all of it in the developing world. The urban concentration is also rising. In developing countries, more than 40 percent of the population now live in urban areas, a percentage that is projected to reach 57 percent by 2030 (and up to 75 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean). Urbanization increases risk by concentrating people and investments in limited geographic zones. As a result, natural hazards can inflict substantial damage in a very short time. Hurricane Andrew, for example, inflicted $20 billion in damages in a few hours when it struck the Miami, Florida area in 1992.

Large cities are highly vulnerable to natural disasters, more so since substantial proportions of their populations are often poorly housed in fringe settlements. Nearly half the world's largest cities are situated in major earthquake zones or tropical cyclone tracks. Substantial increases in economic losses from disasters are highly probable.

See also: Accidents.


Blakie, Piers, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis, and Ben Wisner. 1994. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability, and Disasters. Routledge: New York.

Charveriat, Celine. 2000. Natural Disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Overview of Risk. Washington, D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank.

Freeman, Paul K., Leslie A. Martin, Reinhard Mechler, Koko Warner, and Peter Hausmann.2001. Catastrophes and Development: Integrating Natural Catastrophes into Development Planning, Disaster Risk Management Working Papers Series No. 4. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). 2002. World Disaster Report 2001: Focus on Recovery. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press Inc.

Mitchell, James K., ed. 1999. Crucibles of Hazard: Mega-Cities and Disasters in Transition New York: United Nations University Press.

Munich Reinsurance Company (Munich Re). 2002. Topics: Annual Review: Natural Catastrophes 2001 Munich, Germany: Munich Reinsurance Company.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). 1999. The State of the World Population 1999. New York: United Nations Population Fund.

World Bank. 2001. World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press.

internet resources.

Bendimerad, Fouad. 2000. Megacities, Megarisk. Disaster Management Facility, World Bank <http://www.worldbank.org/dmf/knowledge/megacities.html>

United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR). 2002. Natural Disasters and Sustainable Development: Understanding the Links Between Development, Environment and Natural Disasters, Working Paper No. 5 [Revised Edition]. <http://www.unisdr.org>.

United States Bureau of the Census (Census Bureau). 1999. World Population Profile:1998. <http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/wp98001.html/>

Paul K. Freeman