The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 produced so much volcanic ash that the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried under 4 to 6 meters of ash. Some contemporaneous writers attributed the eruption to the destruction of Jerusalem 9 years earlier, because Titus, the general who led the destruction of Jerusalem had just been crowned Emperor.
The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake is the deadliest in human history, with an estimated 830,000 casualties across two provinces of central China. Many people lived in caves in the local loess, a loose sandstone formed from windblown sediments. Th earthquake happened in the middle of the night and the caves collapsed, burying everyone in them.
The 1755 Lisbon earthquake (magnitude 8.7) destroyed Lisbon, killed tens of thousands and badly damaged the Portuguese economy. Its notable for being the first effective response to a disaster by a central government and the prime minister gained so much political capital from it that he was able to prevail against the Church and end the Inquisition in Portugal.
The 1783 eruption of the Laki Craters in Iceland killed more people than any other natural disaster. The eruption lasted for 8 months, covering much of the farmland of Iceland in lava. The remaining land and the livestock were poisoned by fluorine and sulphuric gases that were released with the lava, so almost one-quarter of Iceland’s 50,000 residents starved to death. The gases traveled over Europe, killing 23,000 people in the UK and many more on the continent. More of the sulfides were pushed up into the stratosphere where they blocked incoming sunlight, cooling the earth which turned off the monsoons, creating droughts and famines that killed millions more in Egypt, India and Japan.
The cities of Tokyo and Yokohama were almost completely destroyed by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake that occurred directly beneath them in 1923. Fires were started in the earthquake and then grew out of control, creating fire tornadoes the Japanese call dragon twists. The death toll exceeded 140,000 with 40,000 dying as the fire swept an evacuation center at the Honjo Military Clothing Depot.
The 1927 floods of the Mississippi River and its tributaries caused deadly flooding across ten of the United States, submerging over 60,000 square kilometers of land, flooded 1% of the homes of the whole United States and sent almost 650,000 people to refugee camps. Herbert Hoover’s successful management of the disaster led to his election as a Republican to be President, but the inequities suffered under his leadership by the African-American communities led to the widespread shift in their voting patterns from consistently Republican (the “party of Lincoln”) to consistently Democratic.
In 1960 an earthquake of magnitude 8.1 occurred in southern Chile. It turned out to be a foreshock, followed 33 hours later by the largest earthquake ever recorded, the great Chilean earthquake of 1960 with a magnitude of 9.5. It occurred across a fault that was 1,000 km long, and lasted for 10 minutes, killing over 5000 people in Chile. It generated a tsunami that swept across the Pacific Ocean killing 61 people in Hawaii, and 142 people in Japan.
The third largest earthquake ever recorded (magnitude 9.2) occurred on Boxing Day 2004 in western Indonesia. The resulting tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean, killing a quarter-million people, citizens of 47 different nationalities in 13 different countries. Over 5,000 Swedes died, mostly in Thailand, making it the greatest loss of life in a natural disaster in the history of Sweden.
The 2011 magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan show us how cascading disasters can damage even the largest modern economies. Because of the very advance earthquake engineering in Japan, only about 150 peopled died in the earthquake. The tsunami was so much taller than had been thought reasonable that it overwhelmed the defenses of the seaside towns and almost 18,000 people died in the tsunami. The nuclear power plants survived the earthquake but one site lost its backup cooling system which led to melting of the nuclear core and release of contamination. The shutdown of all the nuclear reactors created a nationwide shortage of electricity and hardships across the country.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 killed more Americans than any disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The city of New Orleans called for mandatory evacuation 19 hours before the hurricane struck but provided no mechanism to leave the city for the 100,000 residents who did not own private cars. Because manmade levees have changed sediment flows, much of New Orleans is well below sea level and the widespread flooding of the city in a hurricane was expected but not prepared for.