8 Unbelievable Natural Disasters You Never Knew Happened in the United States
You may not remember the volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, tornadoes, and heat waves that changed the country.
Earthquake triggers tsunami in Hawaii
In 1946, a 7.4-magnitude earthquake was recorded off the coast of Alaska’s Unimak Island. A 50-foot tsunami crashed into Unimak shortly after the quake, killing five people who lived in a lighthouse. The wave continued toward the southern Pacific; it would travel all the way to Hawaii. “As the first wave came in and receded, the water in Hawaii’s Hilo Bay seemed to disappear,” writes history.com. “Boats were left on the sea floor next to flopping fish. Then, the massive tsunami struck. In the city of Hilo, a 32-foot wave devastated the town, completely destroying almost a third of the city.” Ninety-six people in Hilo died in the disaster. Learn the scientific basis for popular weather folklore.
The 1980 heat wave
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The summer of 1980 was one of the hottest on record, especially in the south. Temperatures in states such as Texas and Tennessee stayed in the triple digits for more than 40 days at a clip. In Dallas/Fort Worth, the temperature soared to 113 degrees—and stayed there for three consecutive days. The heat wave claimed at least 1,700 lives (elderly people living without access to air conditioning are most at risk during heat waves) and caused more than $20 billion in agricultural damage. Needless to say, people came up with some far-fetched ideas for beating the heat. “Frank Bosco, who claimed to be director of something called the Crop Improvement Institute, said that by firing off canisters containing a ‘patented chemical formula’ he could cool down the area 20 degrees within two days,” writes the Dallas News. “He had no takers.” There were also reports of a rain dance, which did, actually, culminate in a rain shower the following day.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens
Most people know about Mt. St. Helens, but if you weren’t alive during the 1980 eruption, it can be hard to fully understand the destruction. On the morning of May 18, an earthquake caused the north face of Washington State’s infamous volcano to slide away. That allowed the high-pressure gas inside to explode, causing an 80,000-foot eruption column that carried volcanic ash to 11 states. Fifty-seven people were killed, and the eruption caused more than a billion dollars in damage. “Bruce Nelson and Sue Ruff were camped 13 miles north of Mount St. Helens with some friends,” writes opb.com. “At 8:30 in the morning, Nelson was fishing on the Green River when he saw a black cloud looming over the ridge to the south. In seconds, everything around them was black, and their mouths filled with ash. ‘I started to climb through fallen trees. But it got extremely hot,’ said Nelson. ‘I’m a baker who works with huge ovens. This was five or six hundred degrees Fahrenheit.’”
The Great Blizzard of 1888
Northeast cities are no strangers to winter weather. But every decade or so, a blizzard comes through that even the most prepared cities could never prepare for. The Great Blizzard of 1888, often referred to as the most severe—and deadliest—blizzard to hit the United States, was one of those. The so-called Great White Hurricane dumped between 10 and 58 inches (nearly five feet!) of snow in cities from Maryland to Maine and brought 45-mile-per-hour winds to boot. More than 400 people died as a result of the March storm, along with the $25 million in property loss due to fires alone. One New York politician, who died of pneumonia shortly after the storm, wrote to a friend that he climbed “over drifts so high that my head bumped against the signs.” Found out the best American cities for history buffs.
The Johnstown Flood
On May 30, 1989, western Pennsylvania experienced record-breaking amounts of rainfall over a 24-hour period. When residents awoke the next morning, they saw that Lake Conemaugh appeared to be overflowing the South Fork Dam that controlled the waters on the Little Conemaugh River. At 2:50 p.m., the dam breached, unleashing 3.843 billion gallons of water with a volumetric flow rate that equaled that of the Mississippi River. The water first hit the town of South Fork, Pennsylvania, but most residents were able to escape by running to higher ground. It then picked up speed and traveled 14 miles to Johnstown, where it swept up railroad cars and other deadly debris. The flood came as a surprise to the residents and many weren’t able to outrun it. The flood ultimately claimed an estimated 2,000 lives.
The Tri-State tornado
Most people believe tornadoes last just a few minutes and travel little more than a couple miles. And they’d be correct: The average tornado cover between one and 100 miles. But that’s not what happened in 1925. On March 18, the worst tornado in U.S. history traveled 219 miles over the course of three hours, hitting Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. The hours-long affair killed some 695 and injured another 13,000. These are the 8 most bizarre historical coincidences of all time.
The Great Storm of 1900
You might recognize the Galveston hurricane as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. In fact, it’s the deadliest disaster of any type that’s ever occurred in the country. The hurricane claimed between 6,000 and 12,000 lives on Galveston island as well as the Texas mainland, mostly due to its 15-foot storm surge. “Survivors wrote of wind that sounded ‘like a thousand little devils shrieking and whistling,’ of 6-foot waves coming down Broadway Avenue, of a grand piano riding the crest of one, of slate shingles turned into whirling saw blades, and of streetcar tracks becoming waterborne battering rams that tore apart houses,” writes NPR. A 17-foot seawall was built to protect the coast, as well as a memorial to commemorate the dead.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake
At 5:18 a.m. on April 18, 1906, Californians awoke to an estimated 7.9-magnitude earthquake. The main shock lasted just 42 seconds, but the fires that came after destroyed nearly 80 percent of the city. The quake had broken the city’s water mains and prevented firefighters from putting the blazes out quickly. Between 700 and 3,000 were estimated dead. Now learn the 9 historical moments that never actually happened.