Addendum to Introduction – Catalog of Disasters

download EOD Lesson Introduction Outline (including Appendix Catalog of Disasters)

The Black Plague, 1347-50

Dates: Deadliest wave, 1348-1350. Recurring, less severe waves for next century.
Type: Pandemic. Two common manifestations were responsible for most deaths:

The bubonic variant (the most common) derives its name from the swellings or buboes that appeared on the victim’s neck, armpits or groin. These tumors could range in size from that of an egg to that of an apple. Although some survived the painful ordeal, the manifestation of these lesions usually signaled the victim had a life expectancy of up to a week. Infected fleas that attached themselves to rats and then to humans spread this bubonic type of plague. A second variation – pneumonic plague – attacked the respiratory system and was spread by merely breathing the exhaled air of a victim. It was much more virulent than its bubonic cousin – life expectancy was measured in one or two days.” ( “The Black Death, 1348” http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/plague.htm)

Location: All of Europe. Spread to the north and northeast from Italy.

Source: Probably Asia. Italian merchant ships arriving in Messina, Sicily from the Black Sea in October, 1347 carried many sailors dying of the plague. The Black Sea ports were a major link in trade with China.

Human Toll: Approximately 20 million European deaths, or 1/3 of Europe’s population.

Description: One of the best descriptions we have of the plague comes from The Decameron, written by Giovanni Boccaccio in Florence, Italy, in 1348.

‘No doctor’s advice, no medicine could overcome or alleviate this disease. . . . [V]ery few recovered; most died within about three days of the appearance of the tumours . . . . The violence of this disease was such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it. And it even went further. To speak to or go near the sick brought infection and a common death to the living; and moreover, to touch the clothes or anything else the sick had touched or worn gave the disease to the person touching. . . . Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. . . . One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbour troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. . . . What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.. . . [People] remained in their houses, either through poverty or in hopes of safety, and fell sick by thousands. Since they received no care and attention, almost all of them died. Many ended their lives in the streets both at night and during the day; and many others who died in their houses were only known to be dead because the neighbours smelled their decaying bodies. Dead bodies filled every corner. Most of them were treated in the same manner by the survivors, who were more concerned to get rid of their rotting bodies than moved by charity towards the dead. . . . [They] carried the bodies out of the houses and laid them at the door; where every morning quantities of the dead might be seen. . . .

Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial . . . Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds.”

(“The Black Death, 1348” http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/plague.htm)

The Great Chicago Fire, 1871

Dates: October 8, 1871

Type: Accidental. Probably human-caused.

Source: Unknown. Legend has it that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a kerosene lantern in the barn. Although guilt was never proven, Mrs. O’Leary became a social outcast and eventually moved from the city.

Human Toll: 100,000 people homeless, approximately 1/3 of city’s population

Property Damage: The fire destroyed three square miles of the city, including 17,500 buildings valued at over $250 million. This represents 1/3 of the buildings and 1/2 the total property value of the city of Chicago. (Note: To give a sense of the scale of destruction: Adjusting $250 million, using first nominal GDP per capita and then relative share of GDP, gives $59 billion and $434 billion, respectively, in 2006 dollars.) Source: “Six Ways to Compute the Value of the U.S. Dollar,”Measuring Worth.com. http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/ (10-30-07).)

Description: From its origin in the southeast portion of Chicago, the fire was pushed east toward Lake Michigan and then north along its shore by strong southwesterly winds. There were no fire codes at this time and most buildings were made of wood, so the quality of construction, residential and commercial alike, had no effect on the path of the fire. It destroyed everything in its path for twenty-four hours and was finally extinguished by rain. Macaulay, Dendy. “The Chicago Fire of 1871: An Empirical Analysis.” Unpublished manuscript. University of Chicago, May, 2005. pp. 1-4.

The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory

(From the web site of the Chicago Historical Society: http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/index.html)
It was like a snowstorm only the flakes were red instead of white.Fire narrative of Bessie Bradwell HelmerThe fire, driven by a strong wind out of the southwest, headed straight for the center of the city. It divided unpredictably into separate parts by hurling out flaming brands on the superheated draft it generated, leaping the South Branch of the Chicago River around midnight. . . .

By 1:30 it reached the Courthouse tower, from which the watchman barely escaped through the burning stairway by sliding down the banisters. When city officials realized that the building was itself doomed, they released the prisoners from the basement just before the great bell plummeted through the collapsing tower.

As thousands fled to the North Division, the fire pursued them. . . . As the fire spread out of control, the mood of the population shifted from interest and concern to alarm and panic. Many heard the Courthouse bell and saw the red and amber flames in the distance but thought little of what was by this time a commonplace occurrence. Individuals who worked in downtown buildings that were supposed to be “fireproof,” like the one that housed the Tribune, or simply people understandably fascinated with the spectacle, rushed to positions from which they could watch its progress. Before long, however, they realized that there was no place of guaranteed safety. Fascinated as well as fearful, people alternately–even simultaneously–tried to get the best view and flee for their lives with what little–which was often nothing–they could salvage, creating havoc in the streets and wild crowding on the bridges crossing the river. Husbands and wives, parents and children, were separated. It seemed as if the ground was itself on fire–which in fact it was, since the streets, sidewalks, and bridges were made of wood. Even the river seemed vulnerable, as several vessels and grease along the water’s surface ignited. http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/conflag/

Devastated Chicago remained so hot that it took a day or two before it was possible even to begin a survey of the physical damage. According to the papers, in some instances when anxious businessmen opened their safes among the rubble of what was once their offices, precious contents that had survived the inferno suddenly burst into flame on exposure to the air. http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/ruin/

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, 1906

Dates: Earthquake – April 18, 1906. Fire – April 18 – 22, 1906

Type: 8.3 magnitude earthquake. “Natural” fire – caused when the earthquake toppled gas stoves and broke gas lines so that pilot lights ignited many small fires.

Source: San Andreas Fault. A ten ft. horizontal and three ft. vertical shift, three hundred miles long.

Human Toll: Over 3,000 deaths. 250,000 people homeless (out of a total population of about 400,000).

Property Damage: 80% of the city was destroyed. Five thousand houses destroyed by the initial quake and 28,000 buildings destroyed by the subsequent fire. Estimates of total property loss and damage range from $235 million to $400 million. (Note: Value of $300 million in 2006 dollars: $36 billion using GDP per capita, or $127.5 billion using relative share of GDP. “Six Ways to Compute the Value of the U.S. Dollar,” Measuring Worth.com. http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/ (10-30-07).)


“. . . [D]amage in the city was initially limited. There were many collapsed chimneys and broken windows, and numerous buildings lost their facades or roofs, but the majority of buildings survived the tremor. Light wooden houses appear to have held up just as well as the new downtown skyscrapers built of reinforced concrete. . . . For the most part . . . [the houses destroyed by the quake] . . . were either located on ‘made ground’ – filled-in swamp land along the bay – or poorly constructed.. . . Countless small fires, caused by toppled stoves and open gas flames . . . [broke out] in the center of the city. Dealing with these fires would have overwhelmed the Fire Department’s resources, both in manpower and logistical capabilities, under normal circumstances, but now there were additional problems: the department was without experienced leadership because fire chief Dennis Sullivan had been badly hurt in his house and would die four days later in a hospital, and the earthquake had destroyed San Francisco’s obsolete underground water mains – hydrants throughout the city were useless.Within a few hours, the fires, spreading north and southwest from the city center, had become an immense conflagration. One block after another was reduced to ash and rubble. Attempts to halt the flames at major streets failed repeatedly. Before the day was over, much of the city center had to be given up as lost. Larger buildings . . . had their own supplies of water, but once those supplies were exhausted the buildings could not be saved. Nor could smaller brick and cement buildings, which had been considered fireproof but now fell victim to the wooden structures that stood adjacent to them.

. . . Among the losses were the new city hall – the largest building in the country west of Chicago – the entire business district, major cultural institutions, and all of the city’s theaters and hotels. More than half of its private residences were destroyed, cheap downtown boarding houses and mansions in outlying neighborhoods alike. Chinatown, home to tens of thousands and the largest Chinese settlement outside of China itself, vanished. . . . [A] handful of federal facilities could be saved even though they were located within neighborhoods leveled by the fire and luckily, the port and rail facilities also escaped damage.

. . . [On] Saturday morning . . . [April 22, 1906] . . . firefighters were able to bring the fire to a standstill at Van Ness Avenue. Helped by favorable winds, they had finally succeeded in creating a firebreak by blowing up still untouched houses. The Fire Department and Army, confronted by a shortage of water, had been experimenting with using dynamite to bring the fire under control; as a result of inexperience, though, they initially did more harm than good.

After a comparatively brief spell of chaos, order was restored. Relief aid provided by the Army and donations from the rest of the country made it possible just a few days after the quake to assure basic necessities for survival to the displaced people camping in the city’s parks. By the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people had been able to leave the city by ferry or on free trains provided by the Southern Pacific Railroad.” (Strupp, 1-9)
Christopher Strupp. “Dealing with Disaster: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.” Paper presented at the San Francisco Earthquake 1906: Urban Reconstruction, Insurance, and Implications for the Future symposium, Institute of European Studies, University of California at Berkeley, March 22, 2006. pp. 1-9. http://repositories.cdlib.org/ies/060322

1906 San Francisco Earthquake http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1906_San_Francisco_earthquake

The Spanish Flu

Dates: March, 1918 – June, 1919

Type: Pandemic influenza. The name, Spanish flu, comes from the highly publicized death toll in Spain. Spain was not involved in the war and newspaper coverage of the epidemic was not suppressed there as it was among the Allied nations.

Source: Recently verified (through frozen tissue studies) to have been a form of avian flu. The first recorded outbreaks were in Army camps in Kansas. It spread east with troop movements, and quickly reached Europe on American ships. From Europe, it spread to India, Australia, and New Zealand.

Human Toll: Estimates range from twenty to forty million deaths, world wide. 675,000 deaths in the United States – 550,000 of these considered “excess deaths” (beyond normal annual mortality from all causes). American deaths exceed the total of all combat deaths in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in WWI, more died from the flu rather than from combat wounds. American deaths in the ten months of the epidemic also exceed the current twenty year total of deaths from AIDS.


“. . . The influenza epidemic swept the world in three waves: the first in the spring of 1918, the second deadly wave in the fall of 1918, and a third wave that further afflicted some regions in early 1919. The precise origin of the epidemic is unknown, but the first recorded outbreak worldwide occurred in March 1918 among army recruits at Camp Funston, Kansas. The virus spread quickly across the United States and reached Europe in a matter of weeks, apparently with the arrival of American troop ships.. . . [V]ictims died with excessive accumulation of bloody fluid in their lungs. . . A distinguishing characteristic of the 1918 epidemic was that it disproportionately killed [not children and the elderly as is usual, but] men and women ages 15 to 44 . . . [O]ver one percent of males ages 25-34 died as a result of the epidemic. For both whites and nonwhites, the male mortality rate . . . exceeded the female mortality rate by 50-75 percent. . . .It does seem clear that the influenza epidemic did not simply kill the weakest members of. . . [society]. Numerous eyewitness accounts by doctors and other medical personnel attest that influenza killed the most robust individuals in the population. For example, the Acting Surgeon General of the Army remarked that the influenza epidemic ‘kills the young vigorous, robust adults’. . . [and] public health measures taken by local authorities proved completely ineffective at halting the spread of the virus.”

Source: http://www.cepr.org/pubs/dps/DP3791.asp (3-30) “The Economic Effects of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” by Elizabeth Brainerd and Mark V. Siegler Center for Economic Policy Research Discussion Paper Series No. 3791 February, 2003

“The influenza virus had a profound virulence with a mortality rate at 2.5% compared to the previous influenza epidemics, which were less than 0.1%. . . . People were struck with illness on the street and died rapid deaths. One anecdote shared of 1918 was of four women playing bridge together late into the night. Overnight, three of the women died from influenza. Others told stories of people on their way to work suddenly developing the flu and dying within hours. One physician writes that patients with seemingly ordinary influenza would rapidly ‘develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen’ and later when cyanosis appeared in the patients, ‘it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate’. Another physician recalls that the influenza patients ‘died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth’. The physicians of the time were helpless against this powerful agent . . . In 1918 children would skip rope to the rhyme:

I had a little bird,

Its name was Enza

I opened the window,

And in-flu-enza.

. . . The flu that winter was beyond imagination as millions were infected and thousands died. Just as the war had affected the course of influenza, influenza affected the war. Entire fleets were ill with the disease and men on the front were too sick to fight. . . .

The pandemic affected everyone. With one-quarter of the U.S. and one-fifth of the world infected . . . it was impossible to escape from the illness. Even President Woodrow Wilson suffered from the flu in early 1919 while negotiating the crucial Treaty of Versailles to end the World War. Those who were lucky enough to avoid infection had to deal with the public health ordinances to restrain the spread of the disease. The public health departments distributed gauze masks to be worn in public. Stores could not hold sales, funerals were limited to 15 minutes. Some towns required a signed certificate to enter and railroads would not accept passengers without them. Those who ignored the flu ordinances had to pay steep fines enforced by extra officers. Bodies piled up [in funeral homes] as the massive deaths of the epidemic ensued. Besides the lack of health care workers and medical supplies, there was a shortage of coffins, morticians and gravediggers.”

Source: Molly Billings. “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918” February, 2005. http://virus.stanford.edu/uda

 Asian Tsunami, 2004

Date: December 26, 2004.

Type: Earthquake-generated tsunami. The earthquake was the second-largest ever recorded on a seismograph, measuring between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale. The epicenter of the quake was off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Source: The Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake in the Indian Ocean along a six hundred mile interface of the Burma and India plates displaced the seafloor ten yards horizontally and several yards vertically. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the up-thrust generated a force equal to 23,000 atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima in WWII. It triggered tsunamis of various sizes on coasts all around the Indian Ocean and as far away as Africa. The largest tsunamis struck Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Human Toll: United Nations estimates 200,000 dead and more than 40,000 “missing.” The toll may be understated because of governments’ inability to provide accurate population data. Relief agencies estimate that 1/3 of deaths were children. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 1.1 million people were displaced.

Description: National Geographic News, the web version of the well-known magazine, vividly describes the tsunami:

“A tsunami may be less than a foot (30 centimeters) in height on the surface of the open ocean, which is why they are not noticed by sailors. But the powerful pulse of energy travels rapidly through the ocean at hundreds of miles per hour. Once a tsunami reaches shallow water near the coast it is slowed down. The top of the wave moves faster than the bottom, causing the sea to rise dramatically.The Indian Ocean tsunami caused waves as high as 50 feet (15 meters) in some places, according to news reports. But in many other places witnesses described a rapid surging of the ocean, more like an extremely powerful river or a flood than the advance and retreat of giant waves.Tsunamis can extend inland by a thousand feet (300 meters) or more. The enormous force and weight of so much water sweeps away almost everything in its path. As many as a third of the people who died in the Indian Ocean tsunami were children; many of them would not have been strong enough to resist the force of the water. Many people were crushed by debris or when the sea hurled them against structures.

Witnesses said the approaching tsunami sounded like three freight trains or the roar of a jet. In some places the tsunami advanced as a torrent of foaming water. In several places the tsunami announced itself in the form of a rapidly receding ocean. Many reports quoted survivors saying how they had never seen the sea withdraw such a distance, exposing seafloor never seen before, stranding fish and boats on the sand. Tragically the novelty of the sight apparently stoked the curiosity of the people who ran out onto the exposed seafloor. Tourists in Thailand were seen wandering around photographing the scene.

Geographic Knowledge Saved Lives

People who knew geography knew what the receding ocean meant. Survivors who knew it meant trouble reported how they ran for high ground, rounded up family and friends, and tried to warn people who were drawn to the water’s edge. Experts say that a receding ocean may give people as much as five minutes’ warning to escape to high ground. That may have been enough time for many of the people who were killed by the 2004 tsunami to save themselves, if only they knew what to do.

A British newspaper reported that a school student, on vacation in Thailand, recalled a geography lesson about tsunamis and what the withdrawal of the ocean meant. She warned her family and they saved themselves.

In India a man told the Associated Press how he saved his village of some 1,500 people because he recalled watching a National Geographic television documentary about tsunamis [Killer Wave], and remembered that when the ocean receded it was a sign of danger. He sounded the alarm and led the people to high ground, saving almost the entire village.

Somehow the animals also seemed to know that disaster was imminent. Many people reported that they saw animals fleeing for high ground minutes before the tsunami arrived. Very few animal bodies were found afterwards.

. . . A tsunami is a series of waves, and the first wave may not be the most dangerous. A tsunami ‘wave train’ may come as surges five minutes to an hour apart. The cycle may be marked by repeated retreat and advance of the ocean. Some people did not know this on December 26. Once the first wave had gone, they thought it was safe to go down to the beach. . . .

Rotting Corpses

As the day of horror drew to a close the ocean calmed. But where at the start of the day people were going about their normal lives or relaxing at exotic beach resorts now millions of people were struggling with the reality of tens of thousands of dead or missing relatives, destroyed homes, and shattered lives. The thousands of corpses, many hanging in trees or washed up on beaches, immediately started to rot in the tropical heat. With no food or clean water and open wounds, the risk of famine and epidemic diseases was high. . . .

Source: “The Deadliest Tsunami in History?” National Geographic. January 7, 2005. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/12/1227_041226_tsunami.html

Hurricane Katrina

Date: August 29, 2005

Type: Category 5 hurricane. Category 3 when it struck the Gulf Coast, with landfall wind speeds at 125mph. According to the National Climate Data Center:

“Rainfall from Katrina’s outer bands began affecting the Gulf Coast well before landfall. As Katrina came ashore on August 29th, rainfall exceeded rates of 1 inch/hour across a large area of the coast. . . . Precipitation analysis from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center shows that rainfall accumulations exceeded 8-10 inches along much of the hurricane’s path and to the east of the track.”http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2005/katrina.html

Source: Formed in the Atlantic Ocean, over the Bahamas.

Human Toll:

  • more than 1600 deaths,
  • more than one million people displaced
  • over nine million people affected: the entire states of Mississippi and Louisiana, twenty-two counties in Alabama, and nine counties in Florida.

Property Damage:

  • 200,000 Gulf Coast Homes destroyed,
  • insured property damage: $25.3 billion,
  • total property damage: $81 billion
  • 80% of city of New Orleans underwater for several weeks

“. . . [P]roperty damage was worsened by breaks in the levees that separate New Orleans from surrounding lakes. At least 80% of New Orleans was under flood water on August 31st, largely as a result of levee failures from Lake Pontchartrain. The combination of strong winds, heavy rainfall and storm surge led to breaks in the earthen levee after the storm passed, leaving some parts of New Orleans under 20 feet of water. Storm surge from Mobile Bay led to inundation of Mobile, Alabama . . . . Large portions of Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi were underwater as a result of a 20 to 30+ foot storm surge which flooded the cities.” http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2005/katrina.html


Survivor stories and news footage of Hurricane Katrina abound. Newspaper websites are a treasure trove of materials to help students visualize the extent of Katrina’s devastation. The following links are a few of many:

Minneapolis/St.Paul City Pages: Survivor Stories http://citypages.com/databank/26/1294/article13694.asp

Photo Gallery compiled by Red Cross volunteer: http://citypages.com/databank/26/1294/article13694.asp

NOLA – Everything New Orleans and New Orleans Times Picayune: “Katrina: The Storm We Always Feared” – Katrina anniversary retrospective: http://www.nola.com/katrina/

NASA’s Hurricane Katrina Archive: http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/h2005_katrina.html

CBS Sportsline’s coverage of the New Orleans Superdome where tens of thousands of refugees were stranded for days after the hurricane: http://www.sportsline.com/columns/story/9674420

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