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When Disaster Strikes

The Extreme Events That Shook America to Its Core

August 2023

Script

America is known for going big.

Unfortunately, that also applies to natural disasters.

What were the worst disasters in the country’s history?

The worst earthquake occurred in Alaska in 1964.

The Great Alaskan Earthquake had a magnitude of 9.2 — making it the second-largest recorded earthquake in history.i

The resulting tsunamis caused death and damage as far away as California.ii

The Space Needle swayed in Seattle.iii

And the quake’s effect could be seen in waterways as far away as Louisiana.iv

Many Americans think the deadliest fire in the country’s history was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It wasn’t.

But the worst fire actually happened on the exact same night as the Chicago blaze ... and killed more than four times as many people.v

On October 8, 1871, over 1,200 people died as the Peshtigo Fire roared through Wisconsin and Michigan.vi

The wildfire is estimated to have burned up to 1.5 million acres.vii

Around 800 people died in the town of Peshtigo alone — which was completely destroyed within the space of an hour.viii

The story remains poorly remembered, however, because the Chicago Fire dominated headlines.ix

The turn of the century brought the worst natural disaster in American history.

On September 8, 1900, a 140-mph hurricane hit the island town of Galveston, Texas.

The city experienced a storm surge of nearly 16 feet.x

The storm and ensuing flood claimed the lives of up to 8,000 people — nearly a quarter of the island’s residents.xi

Survivors reported the storm lifting up a steel railway trestle and smashing it through a buildingxii and recalled that it took nearly six weeks to bury or cremate all the victims.xiii

Thankfully, Galveston eventually took steps to reduce its vulnerability to extreme weather: building a sea wall and elevating some parts of the city by as much as 11 feet.xiv

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

  1. At 9.2 on the Richter scale, the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 was the worst in the country’s history. 
  2. The deadliest fire in American history was the 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and Michigan. 
  3. The worst natural disaster in American history was a 1900 hurricane that killed 8,000 people in Galveston, Texas. 

Source(s)

  1. M9.2 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami of March 27, 1964 — U.S. Geological Survey
  2. "The 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunamis — A Modern Perspective and Enduring Legacies" (Thomas M. Brocher, et al.) — U.S. Geological Survey
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Deadliest Fires and Explosions in U.S. History — National Fire Protection Association
  6. "The Peshtigo Fire" (Kim Estep) — National Weather Service
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900: A Difficult Prediction — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  11. Galveston Hurricane of 1900 — Encyclopedia Britannica  
  12. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900: A Difficult Prediction — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  13. Ibid.
  14. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900: Rebuilding — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Shownotes

SOUND: "Climbing the Peak" (C.K.M) 

FOOTAGE: Bettmann / Contributor (Getty) // Peshtigo Fire Museum (Peshtigo Historical Society) // Tom Hultquist (National Weather Service) // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

Sources

  1. U.S. Geological Survey
    M9.2 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami of March 27, 1964

  2. U.S. Geological Survey
    "The 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunamis — A Modern Perspective and Enduring Legacies" (Thomas M. Brocher, et al.)
  3. National Fire Protection Association
    Deadliest Fires and Explosions in U.S. History
  4. National Weather Service
    "The Peshtigo Fire" (Kim Estep)
  5. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
    The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica
    Galveston Hurricane of 1900

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