Thursday, September 15, 2005

America in Ruins

[[H I S T O R Y]] * In the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina clobbered America’s Gulf Coast on Monday, August 29, and with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin saying “it wouldn’t be unreasonable” to expect a death toll of 10,000, the news media began declaiming that Katrina “may be the deadliest disaster to hit the United States.” However, with the confirmed fatality estimate now far lower (just under 650, with two-thirds of the deceased in New Orleans), Katrina can so far claim only to be the 10th deadliest natural disaster in American history.

Just five of those 10 catastrophes resulted in the deaths of 1,000 or more people, according to the National Weather Service:

1. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (Texas), which flooded that island city under 15 feet of water and claimed some 8,000 lives. The photograph above shows its aftermath.

2. The Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 (Florida)--the first Category 5 hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Ocean--which killed 3,411 people.

3. The Johnstown Flood of 1889 (Pennsylvania), which was precipitated mostly by the failure of a dam and ultimately caused more than 2,200 deaths.

4. The Chénière Caminada Hurricane of 1893 (Louisiana), said to have claimed between 1,000 and 2,000 lives.

5. The 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane (South Carolina and Georgia), which again killed 1,000 to 2,000 people, mostly of whom drowned to death.

The next four cataclysms on this list are credited by the National Weather Service with taking approximately 700 lives apiece:

6. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which killed between 600 and 720.

7. The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 (California). It has long been said that somewhere around 700 people perished during this combination disaster of a 7.8-magnitude temblor and the citywide blazes that followed it. But recent reassessments put the fatality count at a much more considerable 3,000, which would bump this devastating event into our roster’s top five.

8. The Georgia-South Caroline Hurricane of 1881, said to have taken 700 lives.

9. The Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925 (Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana), which left 695 people dead along its 219-mile path.

By elbowing its way into the 10th position among these disasters, Katrina displaces the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which killed at least 423 people. However, Katrina’s still comparatively small death toll doesn’t tell the whole story of its impact. Because it struck a major American city, its notoriety will undoubtedly place it in the public consciousness alongside the San Francisco shaker and the Galveston storm. And its economic impact seems destined to enhance its position in the record books. Until now, 1992’s Hurricane Andrew--the slow government response to which helped doom President George H.W. Bush’s re-election chances later that year--was the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, with a damage estimate of $21 billion. Katrina is expected to seriously exceed that figure, possibly topping $200 billion, “about the cost of the Iraq war and reconstruction efforts,” according to The Washington Post.

ADDENDUM: Why does Bush seem so anxious to break the bank in order to help Gulf Coast hurricane survivors? Joshua Micah Marshall writes in his Talking Points Memo that “What’s driving this budgetary push is not a natural disaster but a political one, the president’s political crisis,” revealed in Bush’s plummeting approval ratings. “The White House is trying to undo self-inflicted political damage on the national dime.” Truly reprehensible.

READ MORE:The Dark Days After the 1906 Earthquake: New Orleans Chaos Echoes S.F. Violence,” by Kevin J. Mullen (San Francisco Chronicle); “Before the Flood,” by Simon Winchester (The New York Times); “Interview with Erik Larson: The Hurricane That Destroyed Galveston in 1900,” by Rick Shenkman (History News Network).

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