Balladeer’s Blog takes a look at some devastating natural disasters that hit the United States so long ago that some of them have been nearly forgotten.
HIGH MAGNITUDE EARTHQUAKES IN THE MIDDLE UNITED STATES
Dates: December 16th, 1811 … January 23rd, 1812 and February 7th, 1812
Location: Sparsely inhabited sections of Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio
The Events: In New Madrid, MO, residents were literally shaken from their beds by the earthquake at roughly 2:00AM on December 16th. Virtually none of them had ever experienced an earthquake before, but had heard Shawnee legends about one of their gods “stamping their feet hard enough to rend the ground asunder.”
A million-square mile area shook intensely on that day as well as January 23rd and February 7th, 1812. Cincinnati, OH, Louisville, KY and Saint Louis, MO reported falling chimneys and shattered windows. Across multiple states the ground rose and fell, with sinks and ridges forming and trees ripped in two.
The Pemisco River was destroyed, Reelfoot Lake (5 miles by 18 miles) was formed in Tennessee, and the Mississippi & Ohio Rivers flowed backward. Multiple lake bottoms rose by 15 feet and several streams changed direction. Louisville, KY counted 2,600 separate shocks over the course of the events. Only the sparsely settled nature of most of the region at the time prevented a huge body count and massive structural damage.
In response to all this the University of Saint Louis established an entire department for the study of earthquakes. Over the years other universities followed suit.
GALVESTON TIDAL WAVE
Date: September 8th, 1900
Location: Galveston, TX
The Event: On this Saturday, Galveston’s population of 30,000 did not suspect that the light rain which began at 10:00AM was just the first taste of what was headed their way. By Noon citizens were being driven back from the beaches by ever-larger waves and increasingly strong winds. The rain was intensifying, too.
By 3:00PM the winds were at gale force and Galveston’s streets were already under a covering of seawater. Waves were now crashing down on the city a block or two inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Weather Bureau official Joseph Cline, through a Herculean effort, climbed to the top of the Levi Building and looked down to see half of Galveston under water. His rain gauge and anemometer were blown away to parts unknown by the winds. And the event was still just getting started.
Galveston Tribune Editor Richard Spillane wrote “To go out on the streets was to court death. Cisterns, portions of buildings, telegraph poles and walls were falling. The noise of the wind and crashing of buildings was terrifying in the extreme. The people were like rats in a trap.”
The power plants were knocked out by late afternoon and Galveston’s streets were at least knee-deep in water. The residents realized it was far too late to try to reach the mainland. Wind speeds were now in excess of 85 miles per hour. The highest ground in the city was only 5 feet above sea level.
At 7:32PM came the ugly climax. An enormous tidal wave, estimated at a million tons of seawater, hammered Galveston. Houses and other buildings were obliterated. Everyone in the Old Women’s Home on Roseberg Avenue was killed. Ships both large and small were tossed over the docks and into the business section of town. Graveyards were washed away, loosing countless coffins and corpses into the flood waters, where they floated around in a macabre spectacle.
Fifty people were hunkered down at the home of Joseph and Isaac Cline. The residence was believed to have been constructed to weather any storm, but when it was struck by a 200 feet long section of railroad track and trestle the house was knocked loose. The well-designed home survived the massive wave and floated for a time in the flood waters – still in one piece. Eventually it capsized, killing all within.
The Sisters of the Ursuline Convent rescued as many victims as they could from the waters that rushed past their brick building 5 blocks in from the beach. By Midnight the storm was petering out, leaving in its wake the devastated remains of what had once been Galveston. Six thousand people had died and the lowest estimate of the damage was 17 million dollars (in 1900 terms).
Astonishingly, Galveston bounced back from the disaster. Its height above sea level was rendered 17 feet higher through engineering and a higher seawall was constructed. Nearly every structure on the island was rebuilt.
SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE
Date: April 18th, 1906
Location: San Francisco, CA
The Event: At roughly 5:13AM the city was shaken from Nob Hill to the waterfront by an earthquake from the movement of the San Andreas Fault. The opulent City Hall, a 7 million dollar building by 1906 standards, was among the first buildings to fall. The Palace Hotel’s huge glass dome shattered into millions of glass splinters, adding to the chunks of brick and concrete that were raining down on the panicked citizens running out into the streets below.
Broken gas and water lines were thrust upward into tangled messes, looking like bizarre sculptures. The sewers erupted, adding filth and stench to the damage. Rats were driven out of hiding beneath the city and would plague the survivors for days afterward. Fires were burning everywhere in San Francisco as the Fire Department fought a desperate but losing attempt to contain the scattered infernos.
The entire day and throughout the night the disaster continued. Many exhausted citizens collapsed in front of the advancing fires, unable to drag themselves any further. Tent hospitals were hastily set up in Golden Gate Park. Over 300,000 people were rendered homeless and tried sleeping in parks and in the remains of streets & buildings. Amazingly, only 600 people were killed, but over 400 million dollars in damage was done.
San Francisco, like Galveston, rose from disaster. New engineering and architectural approaches were pioneered to better cope with any such future earthquakes.
TILLAMOOK FOREST FIRE
Date: August 14th, 1933
Location: Tillamook Forest, OR
The Event: Around 1:00PM on a very dry day in August, a bolt of lightning struck a Douglas Fir near Gales Creek Canyon and Saddle Mountain. The fire soon spread beyond the control of the lumbermen working the region. Regular firefighters were sent in, ultimately numbering over 3,000 including volunteers.
The rapidly shifting winds thwarted every attempt to contain the forest fire. Thick smoke blanketed the area. Some trees were literally exploding and temperatures a quarter of a mile away from the fire were measured at 120 Degrees Fahrenheit.
Smoke, sparks and wood particles floated over 8,500 feet in the air, pumping a full year’s supply of pollution into the atmosphere on just one afternoon. Untold numbers of wildlife were killed and over 270,000 acres of woodland were destroyed, equaling the entire lumber output of every sawmill in America the previous year. Only 1 human life was lost when the victim was crushed under a falling tree.
In the aftermath of the Tillamook Fire, new conservation measures and firefighting techniques were masterminded. Stronger regulations were imposed on the logging industry, too.
OHIO-MISSISSIPPI VALLEY FLOOD
Date: January, 1937
Location: The Ohio-Mississippi Valley
The Event: What at first seemed like seasonal precipitation refused to let up for the entire month. By January 21st the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers were at flood levels. “Black Sunday” came on January 24th. All car and rail transportation was at a standstill. Martial Law was declared and public health units were mobilized across 12 states. The Ohio River alone was over 48 feet and would rise to over 53 feet before the flood was over.
Tent-cities sprang up everywhere along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, ultimately numbering 1,754 in all. By January 25th, 400 blocks in Evansville, IN were underwater. The Red Cross led an effort to round up over 7,000 boats which were used by rescue crews and to transport food, medical supplies, sterilized drinking water, clothing and bedding into the region.
Kennels and corrals were quickly constructed to house wildlife and livestock. Over 700,000 human victims were cared for, with just 150 dying. Many had been exposed to typhoid and needed to be inoculated. By January 30th the waters were subsiding.
For years afterward, many people in the Ohio-Mississippi Valley were evacuated during the winter and levees built to contain major waterways.