Cataclysm: The World’s Deadliest Single-Day Natural Disasters
January 23, 1556 – Jiajing Great Earthquake – 830,000 dead
“The Great Dying”
“In the winter of 1556, an earthquake catastrophe occurred in the Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces. …Various misfortunes took place. Mountains and rivers changed places and roads were destroyed. In some places, the ground suddenly rose up and formed new hills, or it sank in abruptly and became new valleys…Huts, official houses, temples and city walls collapsed all of a sudden.” – Chinese historical record
At the dawn of 1556, China was a powerful, thriving empire. It was the height of the Ming Dynasty and China enjoyed remarkable stability and prosperity. Ming China has been called “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history.” It is China’s most iconic period. The Ming built much of the Great Wall we see today. They restored the Grand Canal and built the Forbidden City, and established a global network of trade.
On that cold Thursday morning in January, 1556, everything changed. A massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake ripped through the Wei River Valley in Shaanxi Province (then part of Gansu Province) in the hills of central China, causing unimaginable devastation. The city of Huaxian was completely destroyed, killing hundreds of thousands of people, more than half of the population. The nearby cities of Weinan and Huayin didn’t fare much better. Massive crevices up to 65 feet deep opened up, swallowing numerous buildings. Devastation was widespread, covering an area roughly the size of Texas, and the earthquake was felt up to 300 miles away. Some 40 miles away in the ancient capital of Xi’an, the height of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda was reduced from 45 meters to 43.4 meters.
At the time of the earthquake, millions of people lived in man-made caves, called yaodongs, dug out of steep cliffs on the Loess Plateau. Loess is a soft, clay-like soil created by millions of years of windstorms blowing sand and silt from the Gobi Desert onto the plateau. This soft, silty soil covered much of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu Provinces and would have easily liquefied during the earthquake, amplifying the destruction. Landslides wiped out thousands of the caves in the Loess hills. Thousands more simply caved in from the shaking. Tens of thousands of people were buried alive. In all, a staggering 830,000 people died. It was the greatest single-day cataclysm in human history. In several counties, 60% of the population was killed. A massive swath of central China was in ruins.
The disaster helped hasten the end of the Ming Dynasty. Political infighting and peasant unrest progressively escalated from that point forward. In 1618, Manchu tribal leader Nurhaci issued his Seven Grievances in which he demanded tribute from the Ming for mistreating them. This ignited a 26-year civil war that killed an estimated 25 million people. On May 26, 1644, 88 years after the earthquake, the Manchu sacked Beijing and the Ming Dynasty, which had ruled China for 276 years, was over.
July 28, 1976 – Great Tangshan Earthquake – 655,000 dead
“The Night the City Died”
The 1970’s was a harsh time to be in China. It was near the end of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, during which millions starved in countrywide famines. Thousands of suspected political enemies were rounded up and thrown in prison or executed at the hands of the infamous Red Guards. All schools were closed and thousands of scholars were forced to “re-educate” themselves through hard labor with the peasants in the countryside. Millions of lives were ruined and an untold number of Chinese citizens were driven to suicide. The Communist Party, and most of the country for that matter, was in turmoil. Mao’s health was failing and the “Gang of Four” was vying for power.
While all this was going on, seismologists monitoring the normally quiet Yellow Sea fault lines were becoming increasingly concerned. Some two weeks before the earthquake, leading Chinese seismologist Wang Chengmin concluded that the Tangshan region would be struck by a significant earthquake between July 22 and August 5. Few paid much attention to these warnings. Officials in Qinglong County did however, and risked their political careers and possible imprisonment by ordering the evacuations of some 470,000 residents. Their actions undoubtedly saved many lives. In the days preceding the quake, local residents reported many strange events. Well water rose and fell wildly, fish leapt out of ponds, and people saw strange lights in the sky, often accompanied by loud roaring noises that reminded many of a jet airplane flying overhead. All seemed to foretell the horror to come.
In the early morning hours of July 28, 1976, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked China’s Yellow Sea corridor near Tangshan, a large industrial city of 1.6 million people. Tremors were felt as far away as Xi’an nearly 500 miles away. It lasted only 15 seconds but left 85% of the city in ruins. The soft soil beneath the city liquefied, causing hundreds of thousands of buildings to collapse. It was not quite 4 am and most of the city’s residents were asleep. They never knew what hit them. Most lived in one story brick homes with heavy concrete roofs that collapsed almost immediately. Hundreds of thousands of people were crushed to death as they slept. The rescue effort was slowed by the recent political turmoil, and the Chinese government proudly refused all foreign aid, so it was months before all the ruins were thoroughly searched. Thousands undoubtedly died in the ruins waiting for help that never came.
The Chinese government was reluctant to say just how many people had died. The official figure is 240,000 but most modern research says that the true number is probably closer to 655,000, roughly half of the city’s urban population. No major urban center has suffered such complete decimation of its populace in a single event in human history with the possible exception of Hiroshima. In China, natural disasters have long been seen as an omen of coming political change. In this instance, the superstition proved prophetic. Mao Zedong died on September 9, six weeks after the earthquake, and the “Gang of Four” was ousted in a coup on October 6. Tangshan was gradually rebuilt under more stringent building codes, but for upwards of a decade afterwards, thousands lived in large temporary housing blocks. Today, little evidence of the quake remains visible. A towering memorial stands guard at the gates of the city, a permanent reminder of the tragedy, honoring the fallen heroes of the “brave city of Tangshan.”
November 12, 1970 – Bhola Cyclone – 400,000 dead
“The Lost Generation”
Bangladesh has a long history of catastrophic tropical cyclones with death tolls in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. It straddles the world’s largest river delta and much of the country lies below sea level. There, millions of people live in crowded coastal cities, piled up in rickety wooden shacks and huts on barren islands and marshy lowlands. On top of that, they lie at the focal point of a concave coast that acts to maximize the storm surge right where the people are most vulnerable. Every so often, a storm will come along and wipe out tens of thousands of them in one fell swoop.
The storm that struck at around 9 pm on November 12, 1970 was the worst of them all. It was not exceptionally powerful, a low-end Category 3, but it struck at the peak of high tide. A 33-foot storm surge obliterated the coastline. Roughly a quarter of the coastal population of 1.5 million was killed. On many offshore islands, everyone died. In parts of the Bhola district, the mortality rate was nearly 50%. The scale of the mortality was so great that it was difficult to calculate the number of dead. Numerous families were completely wiped out, leaving no record of their existence. In many areas, the destruction was so great that it was difficult to tell how many had lived there.
Roughly 200,000 bodies were recovered and the official figure is 251,000 dead, but an estimated 100,000+ could not be accounted for. Thousands were simply swept out to sea. 77,000 people died in the subdistrict of Tazumuddin alone, almost the entire population. The fishing industry, the region’s lifeblood, was decimated. Of the 77,000 offshore fishermen, 46,000 died in the storm and 9,000 boats were lost. 65% of the total fishing capacity was lost in a region where 80% of protein comes from fish. Across much of coastal Bangladesh, there was effectively a lost generation. Children under ten and adults over the age of 60 were almost completely wiped out. The “Greatest Generation” was almost destroyed and thousands of Baby Boomers were orphaned. This disaster has been popularized as “the storm that created a nation.” Bangladesh was at the time part of Pakistan. The Pakistani government’s severe mishandling of relief efforts was the final straw for the Bangladeshi people who declared independence from Pakistan the following March and won the ensuing civil war.
November 5, 1530 – St. Felix’s Flood – 400,000 dead
St. Felix’s Flood was not a flood as we think of it. It was actually more of a storm surge. On November 5, 1530, dubbed “Evil Saturday” by contemporary writers, a severe gale struck Flanders (now part of Belgium) and the Zeeland province of the Netherlands. The storm sent a cataclysmic flood across hundreds of square miles of lowland. Eighteen villages in the Oost Watering area of Zuid Beveland were completely washed away. The city of Reimerswaal, which sat at a slightly higher elevation, was now an island cut off from the mainland. The city eventually had to be abandoned. A large percentage of the population of Zuid Beveland was annihilated. The floodwaters never really receded in Zeeland as they did in Flanders. The area that was dry land before the flood and underwater immediately after the flood is now a marshy, uninhabitable wetland.
November 25, 1839 – Coringa Cyclone – 300,000 dead
“I am become Death, Shatterer of Worlds” – from Hindu scripture, famously quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer watching the explosion of the first atomic bomb
Coringa, India was once a thriving port city of 500,000-800,000 people. It was a major trade port of the British East India Company along India’s Bengal coast. Two storms took it all away. In 1789, the port was all but destroyed by a cyclone and an estimated 20,000 people died. The city would eventually recover. Then, 50 years later, a storm even worse hit. It brought one of the largest known storm surges in history to the Indian coastline. It was a 40-foot wall of water that obliterated Godavari Bay, Coringa’s natural harbor. The entire area; the town, the port and surrounding villages, was eviscerated. It caught residents completely by surprise. The harbor and immediate vicinity was full of as many as 20,000 boats of all sizes, most of them with a full crew on board. Not one boat survived the storm. Most of the town’s inhabitants died in the storm. The Coringa cyclone exacted what is probably the second highest death toll suffered by a single town in a natural disaster. This time, Coringa never recovered. It’s now just a small town five miles from the harbor it once dominated. The town of Kakinada is now the area’s principal port.
October 8, 1881 – Haiphong Typhoon – 300,000 dead
“The Sea Brought God to Tears”
The Gulf of Tonkin usually acts to shelter coastal towns from the worst of incoming typhoons that usually run into Hainan Island first or miss the gulf entirely to the south. However, should a typhoon manage to come up from the south and into the gulf, Tonkin’s tight confines would act to amplify the storm surge. This is what happened in early October, 1881. Haiphong is a major port city in northern Vietnam. It is the primary seaport for the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and sits 10 miles from the coast along a broad channel. On October 8, 1881, a powerful typhoon slammed into the Vietnamese coast just south of Haiphong. The city was inundated by the massive storm surge and a large portion of it was destroyed. The city’s population was decimated. The many thousands of people living in the low-lying areas along the riverbank in huts, shacks and poorly constructed houses didn’t have a chance. An estimated 300,000 people died in the storm and its immediate aftermath and untold thousands more died in the ensuing famine and outbreaks of disease. The storm had a devastating effect on the regional economy and it took decades for the area to recover.
December 16, 1920 – Haiyuan Earthquake – 273,400 dead
“Atlas Shivered and the World Fell Apart”
Why do earthquakes hit China so hard? Numerous Chinese earthquakes have killed tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. Many of the deadliest natural disasters in history come from China. Some might simply attribute it to the country’s dense population, but it’s more complex than that. It’s a combination of crowded cities, weak soil and a tangled landscape of steep hills, yawning river valleys and low-lying coastal plain. 1920 was a chaotic time in China. In 1911, after nearly 2,300 years as an empire, the Qing Dynasty fell and a republic took its place. The new government was embroiled in a tense conflict over Mongolia, which had seceded in the aftermath of the Qing Dynasty’s collapse.
At 8:06 pm on December 16, 1920, a massive earthquake ripped through Ningxia Province. It was officially a 7.8 on the Richter Scale but the Chinese claim it was actually 8.5. The quake caused epic devastation across hundreds of square miles of central China. 73,000 people died in Haiyuan County alone. Another 30,000 died in Guyuan County. The village of Sujiahe was buried by a landslide and the towns of Longde (14,000 dead) and Huining (20,000 dead) were razed to the ground. 12,800 people died in Jingyuan County of Gansu province. Several major cities, including Xi’an, suffered significant damage.
125 miles of surface faulting (cracks in the soil from where the earth split open) was observed. Seiches, or stationary waves, associated with the earthquake were recorded in lakes and fjords in western Norway. It was initially estimated that approximately 230,000 people died. This has since been raised to over 270,000. Hundreds of thousands more were left homeless in the dead of winter. Survivors built temporary refugee camps, where thousands died of exposure and malnutrition. Numerous rivers were dammed by landslides and others changed course, causing major floods. At the time, it was the deadliest earthquake since the 1556 event and would remain so until Tangshan.
May 20, 526 – Antioch Earthquake – 250,000 dead
“The great City hath fallen to Ruin”
The ancient city of Antioch in modern-day Turkey was one of the biggest Mediterranean trade ports of the ancient world. It was beneath only Rome, Constantinople and perhaps Alexandria in importance. It was the gateway to the Near East and home to over 500,000 people. Today, it sits on the northeast Mediterranean coast in extreme south-central Turkey near the border with Syria and is now known as Antakya. The region has a long history of devastating earthquakes. On December 13, 115, at the height of the Roman Empire, a earthquake devastated the region and left three quarters of the city in ruins. Emperor Trajan and his army were wintering in the city at the time as they were campaigning against the Parthian Empire (modern day Iran). Trajan himself was nearly killed, escaping the house he was staying at moments before it collapsed. Untold thousands died. The ancient city of Apamea, south of Antioch and closer to the epicenter, was leveled. In the aftermath of the quake, Trajan halted his campaigns against Parthia to spearhead reconstruction of the city. Further devastating earthquakes followed in 342 and 458.
Four hundred years later, it happened again. In the last week of May, 526, a major earthquake rocked the northeast Mediterranean Sea from almost the exact same area as the 115 quake, only this time the epicenter was much closer to the city and the result was even more devastating. The entire city was virtually destroyed. What buildings weren’t left in ruins went up in flames when a massive fire swept through the city. Among the buildings destroyed was the famous Domus Aurea cathedral built by the emperor Constantine 200 years earlier. In the port village of Seleucia Pieria that served the Antioch metropolitan area, the ground uplifted as much as two and a half feet. The subsequent silting of the harbor rendered it unusable.
Antioch’s population was decimated. Estimates put the death toll at a minimum of 250,000 people. The death toll was exacerbated by the presence of thousands of Christian migrants who came to the city to celebrate Ascension Day, which fell on May 21 of that year, right around the time of the earthquake. The earthquake signaled the end of the city’s glory days. Twelve years later, the Persians sacked the city and it wouldn’t be liberated until the First Crusade in 1098.
December 26, 2004 – Indian Ocean Earthquake & Tsunami – 230,273 dead
“The Day After Christmas”
The human race has a very short memory. Despite the incredible catastrophes of the 1970’s, there was a widespread belief that disasters of such epic scale were a thing of the past. This sense of security was erased on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, 2004. The Sunda Megathrust off the coast of Sumatra was known to have produced massive earthquakes in the past but, prior to 2000, it had seen just one significant earthquake since 1861 (7.7 in 1935). Then, on June 4, 2000, a magnitude 7.9 shook Enganno Island on the southern end of the fault, followed by a 7.3 shock in November, 2002 on the northern end. The Sunda was stirring. Meanwhile, life continued as normal along the shores of the Indian Ocean. That day in 2004, thousands of western tourists packed coastal resorts of Thailand, India and Sumatra for the holidays. Their world was about to be turned upside down.
At 8 am local time, December 26, 2004, the Sunda snapped. A massive 9.1 earthquake ripped through the sea floor. 1,000 miles of faultline slipped 33 feet laterally and as much 16 feet vertically. The earthquake was so violent that vibrations from it were measured around the world. The entire Earth literally shook. In fact, the planet wobbled off it’s axis by as much as 2.4 inches and permanently altered its rotation. The earthquake shortened the average day by 2.68 microseconds, only a hundredth of a blink of an eye, but still a staggering impact for a single event (though it’s worth pointing out that the Moon’s tidal effects lengthen our day by 15 microseconds each year, so this effect was wiped out about five weeks after the earthquake). Most earthquakes last for only a few seconds. This one lasted eight and a half minutes and was the longest earthquake in recorded history.
But the real killer wasn’t the shaking of the ground, it was the shaking of the sea. A massive tsunami rippled across the ocean and inundated hundreds of miles of densely populated coastline. Along the coast of Sumatra near the epicenter, the waves were 100 feet high. The tsunami was recorded as far away as Struisbaai, South Africa…5,282 miles from the epicenter. Tidal disturbances were noticed as far away as the west coast of North America. Northern Sumatra was devastated. Upwards of 170,000 people died in Aceh province, 100,000 of them in the city of Banda Aceh alone. 60% of Banda Aceh was destroyed. Boats were carried over a mile inland. The town of Lhoknga was leveled by the tsunami, its population reduced from 7,500 to 400.
The east coast of India, Sri Lanka and southern Thailand were also devastated. The fishing industry in Sri Lanka, the lifeblood of thousands of its citizens, was decimated. As much as two thirds of active fishermen died in the tsunami and upwards of 90% of fishing boats and other infrastructure was lost. A crowded passenger train travelling along the coastal railway was thrown from the tracks by the tsunami. 1,700 people died. It was the deadliest train disaster in history. This was by far the deadliest tsunami event ever recorded. It led to the development of an advanced tsunami warning system that now has stations across the globe.
October 11, 1138 – Aleppo Earthquake of 1138 – 230,000 dead
“I will be with kings and counselors of the Earth who built for themselves places now lying in ruins.” – Job 3:14
The city of Aleppo, or Halab, is Syria’s largest city and is one the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, dating to at least 2,000 BC. It lies in a mountainous region east of ancient Antioch. Throughout the early Middle Ages, the two cities were struck by numerous devastating earthquakes. On November 29, 533, a major quake killed an estimated 130,000 people in and around Aleppo, but very little else is known about that event. The region is at the northern end of a fault system known as the Dead Sea Transform, which has produced major events as recently as the 1800s, but was especially active from the 2nd-13th centuries. After the 6th Century, the activity calmed down. By the 1100’s, the city was at the center of the Crusades and the Byzantine-Seljuk Wars. The Second Crusade was just seven years away and Aleppo was hotly contested between the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire and the Seljuk Turks. The city had been under Muslim control for about ten years and the Crusaders had built a large citadel in the nearby Byzantine-held city of Harem.
On Wednesday, October 11, 1138, a violent earthquake shook the region. Aleppo and numerous nearby villages were almost entirely destroyed. The citadel and surrounding buildings at Harem collapsed, killing hundreds. The city of Harem itself was also completely destroyed, killing untold thousands. The Muslim fort at Atharib was also destroyed with heavy loss of life. The town of Zaradna, already ravaged by war, was utterly obliterated. Just how many people died there is unknown, but loss of life was undoubtedly very high. Thousands more died in Muslim towns east of the city. Residents of Aleppo proper were reportedly warned by powerful foreshocks and fled by the thousands into the surrounding countryside. So while the city was destroyed, the death toll there was comparatively low. The earthquake was felt as far away as Damascus, hundreds of miles to the south. Aftershocks continued into early November. The true death toll is the subject of debate but is believed to be around 230,000 people.
August 8, 1975 – Super Typhoon Nina – 229,000 dead
“Down Came the Rain”
Perhaps no other disaster in history better exemplifies how a seemingly minor event can become a catastrophe and how devastating poor emergency response can be. It could fairly be argued that the China floods of August 7-8, 1975 were as much a man-made disaster as a natural one. Less than a year before the cataclysm at Tangshan; a 2,000-year flood, poor engineering, and widespread miscommunication would combine to create an incredible catastrophe. Typhoon Nina formed over the open west Pacific on July 30 and strengthened steadily as it moved westward. It eventually grew into a powerful Category 4 super typhoon with 155 mph sustained winds. Fortunately for the people of Taiwan, Nina weakened to a Category 3 before striking the island. As it was, the storm brought widespread heavy rain and flash flooding that killed 29 people and heavily damaged or destroyed thousands of homes. The storm weakened substantially during its trip across the island and moved into China as only a tropical storm. However, once inland, a weakening Nina combined with a cold front to produce incredible amounts of rain. In less than two days, over 40 inches of rain fell across Henan province.
At the time, a network of hastily built earthen dams held back many of China’s rivers, including the river Ru. The largest of the Ru River dams was the Banqiao Dam. Years earlier, one of China’s leading hydrologists had harshly criticized the government’s dam building policy of scaling back crucial safety features to save time and money. He was fired. Now, his worst fears were about to be realized. Dams across the region were struggling to hold back the floodwaters. The flooding rains had caused widespread communication failures due to downed lines and collapsed buildings. The local Chinese army garrison sent out the first dam failure warning at 9:30 pm August 7 by telegraph, but it was too late. Shortly after midnight on August 8, the smaller Shimantan Dam upstream of Banqiao, billed to withstand a 500-year flood, failed under twice its capacity, sending a torrent downstream. The military ordered an air strike to destroy Banqiao in a desperate attempt to relieve the pressure and minimize the catastrophe, but this too came too late.
At 1 am, the torrent from Shimantan overran Banqiao’s reservoir, which crested 118 feet above mean water level before the dam failed. The two failures released nearly 16 billion tons of water. This set off a chain reaction as all the dams downstream failed one by one. In all, 62 dams failed. A torrent over six miles wide and up to 25 feet high rushed down into the plains below at 30 mph, utterly obliterating a 325 square mile area. It created temporary lakes as large as 4,600 square miles. That’s over half the size of Lake Ontario and would be the 15th largest lake in the world. Seven county seats, countless communities and thousands of square miles of countryside were inundated. Because of the widespread communication failure and bad weather conditions, evacuation orders weren’t received in time. Half of the 36,000 people living in the Wencheng commune of Suipin County died in the flood. Daowencheng and all 9,600 of its citizens were wiped from the face of the earth. Several dams downstream were destroyed by air strikes to ease the devastation. Jingguang Railway, a major artery between Beijing and Guangzhou was severed for 18 days.
Nine days after the disaster, over a million people were still stranded by floodwaters, unreachable by disaster relief and relying on air drops to stay alive. Tens of thousands of stranded survivors died of dehydration, malnutrition and disease in the weeks following the disaster. In all, an estimated 229,000 people died, nearly 6 million buildings were destroyed and 11 million residents were affected.
January 12, 2010 – Port au Prince Earthquake – 222,570 dead
“Tears in Paradise”
The Caribbean, Haiti in particular, has a long history of destructive tropical cyclones, but before January, 2010, few in the region worried much about earthquakes. Strong earthquakes were rare and destructive ones were even rarer. No Caribbean earthquake had killed more than 50 people since 1918. Natural disasters in general in the Western Hemisphere seldom approached the scale of the cataclysms of Asia. To that point, the deadliest natural disaster to strike the Western Hemisphere was a 1970 earthquake in Peru that killed 74,000 people. The idea that a natural disaster could take the lives of hundreds of thousands in this part of the world was unfathomable.
But then at 4:53 pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake ripped through the Haitian peninsula just west of Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital. It was a shallow earthquake, which exacerbated the shaking, that struck right near a major population center in a desperately poor country filled with old, fragile masonry buildings and millions of people living in poorly constructed homes. It was a worst case scenario. Much of the southern half of the country was devastated. The town of Leogane, near the epicenter, was almost entirely destroyed and as many as 30,000 of its citizens were killed; almost its entire population. Port au Prince was in ruins. Major government buildings, including the Presidential Palace, hospitals, roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure were heavily damaged or destroyed. The city’s airport and seaport were heavily damaged, hampering relief efforts. The Ministry of Education estimated that half of the country’s 15,000 primary schools and 1,500 secondary schools were severely damaged or destroyed. All three major universities in Port au Prince were in ruins.
The human catastrophe across the region was appalling. An estimated 150,000 people died in the city of Port au Prince alone. Thousands more died in the surrounding area and rural communities across southern Haiti. Employees at Port au Prince’s largest hospital estimated that as many as 75,000 bodies had passed through their mortuary alone. The city’s morgues were overwhelmed and thousands of corpses were lined up on streets and sidewalks. After several days corpses still buried in the ruins began to decompose and the acrid smell of death permeated through large sections of the city. Tens of thousands were loaded onto dump trucks and buried in mass graves to prevent the spread of disease. Others were burned in large funeral pyres. Workers pried open many above ground tombs and stacked bodies inside.
In the nights immediately following the earthquake, thousands of survivors who’d lost their homes slept on the streets or in cars before moving to tent cities and shantytowns, where over a million remained one year later. A bad cholera outbreak followed in the wake of the disaster, killing thousands. The earthquake is believed to have killed over 220,000 people, left roughly 1.8 million homeless and destroyed 280,000 structures.
December 22, 856 – Damghan Earthquake – 200,000 dead
“A Trembling in the Mountains”
Damghan is one of Iran’s oldest cities, dating to the fifth millennium BC. In the late 3rd – early 2nd century BC, it was the capital of the Parthian Empire. Situated at the base of the Alborz Mountains in northeast Iran, the city is home to Iran’s oldest mosque, dating to the 8th Century AD. At the time of the earthquake, Damghan was part of the Abbasid Caliphate, a massive Islamic empire that by 850 controlled a vast expanse of the Middle East and North Africa. The Abbasids and their predecessors, the Umayyads, controlled two of the largest contiguous empires in history. This period is known as the Golden Age of Islam. Damghan was an important place of trade along the empire’s eastern frontier.
According to the Abbasid historical record, on Tuesday, December 22, 856 (“18 Sha’ban 242”), a powerful earthquake ripped through the eastern Alborz, devastating the Qumis district and surrounding area. Damghan was half destroyed and 45,096 people were killed there. Shahr-e-Qumis, the fabled city Alexander the Great called “The One Hundred Gates,” was completely destroyed and subsequently abandoned. Bistam was partially destroyed and the region between there and Damghan still showed the effects of the earthquake two generations later. The quake had a devastating effect on water supplies in the Qumis district, causing springs to dry up and triggering landslides that dammed up streams flowing down into the plains.
October 31, 1876 – Great Bakerganj Cyclone – 200,000 dead
Bakerganj is a historical region of Bangladesh in what is now Barisal Division. It is a flat, low-lying, marshy coastal region whose immediate coast is home to the Sundarbans, the largest tract of coastal mangrove forest in the world. It is here that many of history’s deadliest tropical cyclones have come ashore, including the worst ever. In 1582 (some sources say 1584), “a five-hour hurricane and thunderstorm” devastated the Bakerganj coast, killing 200,000 people. Only the Hindu temples were spared. Nearly 300 years later, it happened again. On All Hallows Eve, 1876, a powerful tropical cyclone with 140 mph sustained winds roared across the estuaries of Bakerganj. Reportedly, a massive storm surge 40 feet high decimated the entire region, wiping out 100,000-200,000 people. Virtually the entire Bangladesh coast was laid to waste. A large swath of eastern India was also destroyed. The storm also caused widespread famine and disease that killed thousands more.
September 1, 1923 – Great Kanto Earthquake – 142,807 dead
“Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down”
Earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan. Hardly a week goes by that at least a slight tremble isn’t felt in downtown Tokyo. In the country’s long history, they’ve seen many devastating quakes, but none more horrible than the day Tokyo burned. In 1923, Tokyo was an aging city in the modern world. Most of the city’s buildings were made of wood and were tightly packed. The city had a volunteer fire department that would prove woefully ill-equipped for the horror that was to come. It was close to noon on the first day of September, 1923. Thousands were cooking lunch on woodburning stoves or eating in restaurants. It was an unusually windy day as a typhoon was about to pass just offshore.
At 11:58 am, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake ripped through Tokyo Bay. The earthquake lasted roughly five minutes and hundreds of homes collapsed, igniting numerous fires across the city that rapidly spread out of control. The high winds fanned the flames, which soon morphed into a firestorm, engulfing the entire Tokyo metro area. There was nowhere for anybody to go to escape the flames. In a small square in downtown Tokyo, some 38,000 people had taken shelter following the earthquake. Down the road, the firestorm spun into a “fire whirl”, a fast moving, tornado-like, swirl of fire that swept through the square without warning. All 38,000 people taking shelter there were incinerated before they knew what hit them. It was the largest and most devastating fire whirl ever observed.
The earthquake broke water mains all over the city, making it virtually impossible for Tokyo’s volunteer fire department to fight the flames. Water alone likely wouldn’t have had much of an effect anyway. The fire burned continuously for three days and severely restricted rescue efforts. Untold thousands of survivors buried in the rubble were burned alive by the flames. In the mountains beyond the city, landslides buried hundreds of homes. A collapsing mountainside pushed the entire village of Nebukawa, including a train carrying over 100 passengers and the entire train station, into the Pacific Ocean. But none of that compared to the scale of the devastation by Tokyo Bay. When the smoke cleared and the flames died down, Tokyo was gone. Roughly 60% of the Tokyo metro area, including Yokohama, Kawasaki, and other suburban areas had been burned to ashes. 142,800 people died, over half a million homes were completely destroyed and 1.9 million people were left homeless.
Chaos reigned in the aftermath of the disaster as the Japanese army and local police struggled to keep order. Widespread racial violence, particularly against ethnic Koreans, took place. Koreans were accused of starting the fires and using the disaster as an excuse to pillage. They were also accused of poisoning wells across the city. Angry mobs slaughtered hundreds of ethnic Koreans as well as others who were misidentified as Korean. Some members of local police facilitated and participated in the massacre. The Japanese army was ordered to detain ethnic Koreans to diffuse the situation, but many taken into custody ended up being killed. In all, roughly 2,500 ethnic minorities were massacred.
Tokyo was rebuilt and special care was taken to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Public buildings were built with modern materials and stricter building codes and were designed to house refugees in the event of a disaster. Numerous parks were incorporated into the reconstruction plan to serve as additional safe havens from earthquake and fire. Sadly it was all for naught. Twenty years later, the city of Tokyo would again burn to the ground, this time courtesy of American bombs during World War II. The death toll was much the same. Today, Tokyo bears few scars of that first day of September, 1923. There are a few small memorials scattered across the city. But while visible scars are few, the memories remain vivid and somber. To this day, schools and public offices hold a moment of silence at 11:58 am every September 1.
April 30, 1991 – Bangladesh Cyclone of 1991 – 138,866 dead
“Blood In the Water”
After the horror of the 1970 storm and two others in the 1960s that killed tens of thousands, Bangladesh sought help from the west for cyclone preparedness. American meteorologists went to Bangladesh, assessed the country’s forecast and warning system and proposed numerous changes. Warnings were posted on all national media and numerous reinforced storm shelters were set up throughout the coastal cities. The tactics seemed to work. Bangladesh largely avoided major cataclysm for the next 20 years. In May, 1985, a relatively weak cyclone took the country completely by surprise and killed 11,000 people, washing away numerous homes. In November, 1988, a strong Category 3 storm killed some 4,000 people, even after a significant number of people evacuated. And sadly, a warning system is only effective if people are willing to listen.
The storm of 1991 was one of the most powerful cyclones ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal. It was a massive Category 5 with 160 mph sustained winds and was moving rapidly toward the Bangladeshi coast. Warnings were issued a full two days in advance and some two million people fled the coast, but hundreds of thousands more refused to believe the warnings and stayed put. Others didn’t know where the shelters were or how to get there. As many people living in the area did not have access to television or other news media, many did not hear the warnings until it was too late.
The storm made landfall 35 miles south of Chittagong at around 1:30am local time on April 30, 1991 as a strong Category 4 with 155 mph sustained winds. A storm surge in excess of 20 feet obliterated the coastline. Chittagong was inundated and thousands of people were swept away. Thousands more were trapped in their homes and drowned. Numerous rural coastal villages around Chittagong simply vanished along with virtually everybody that stayed behind. A 100 ton crane at the port of Chittagong was ripped out of the ground and thrown into a bridge by the force of the storm surge, snapping it in two. 138,000 people died, a staggering one million homes were destroyed and ten million people were left homeless (the majority of Bangladesh’s coastal population).
May 2, 2008 – Cyclone Nargis – 133,657 dead
While Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent India, have been repeatedly devastated by tropical cyclones, the desperately poor, low lying river deltas of Myanmar (or Burma) has largely escaped such devastation. There are many reasons for this. First, Myanmar does not take strong tropical cyclones on the chin nearly as often as Bangladesh and the coastal areas aren’t nearly as crowded. Much of southwestern Myanmar, however, is below sea level and occupied by very poor farms and rice fields. On top of that, Myanmar was and remains ruled by an authoritarian military junta. There were very little means of getting information to people in these areas and few worried about cyclones anyway as they rarely struck that area with any severity. Evacuating would risk their livelihoods. It would mean abandoning the only means of survival and most had nowhere to go anyway.
Some knew of the storm, but up until landfall, it wasn’t particularly strong. Then, 24 hours before landfall, it exploded into a Category 3 storm and headed right for the Ayeyarwady Delta of southwestern Myanmar. By then it was too late. By the time Nargis reached the coast, it was a Category 4 with 135 mph sustained winds. It drove a massive 23 foot storm surge into the marshes and rice fields of Ayeyarwady. Entire villages along with tens of thousands of people were wiped out. Ugaungpu Island or Pyinzalu Kyun was completely inundated and virtually swept clean. Untold thousands were swept out to sea or vanished into the vast expanses of marshland surrounding the towns and rice fields. The region’s infrastructure was devastated. Many of those who survived the storm lost their livelihood and everything they owned. The country’s capital and largest city, Yangon, also suffered extensive flooding and many homes there were destroyed. The capital was subsequently moved to the city of Nay Pyi Taw farther inland.
The country’s military junta was reluctant to accept foreign aid and for days blocked any foreign relief workers from getting to the region. To make matters worse, China, Myanmar’s closest ally, was hit by a devastating earthquake just ten days after Nargis hit, tying up humanitarian resources. Finally, under intense international pressure, Myanmar permitted western aid to enter the region. By then, however, it was far too late for the many thousands trapped in floodwaters and thousands of others who had spent days without food or fresh water waiting for help to come. 133,000 people are believed to have died in the storm and untold thousands more died in ensuing outbreaks of famine and disease.
October 6, 1948 – Ashgabat Earthquake – 110,000 dead
Turkmenistan is one of the handful of poor, former Soviet nations in central Asia. To its west is the Caspian Sea and to the south is Iran. Ashgabat is the country’s capital and in 1948, it was at the Soviet Union’s southern frontier, just miles from the Iranian border. Earthquakes are not all that uncommon in the region but destructive ones are. In the fall of 1948, the wounds of World War II were still raw. The Iron Curtain had descended over Europe and the United States and the Soviet Union had begun their political chess match. The Cold War had begun. Rumors began swirling that Russia was on the verge of developing an atomic bomb (indeed they would conduct their first test nearly a year later). Under the cloud of communism, few would ever know of the horrible events that took place that fall morning.
At 2:17am on October 6, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake ripped through the mountains 25 km southwest of Ashgabat near the Iranian border. Most of the residents of the city were asleep and never knew what hit them. The entire city was devastated. Hundreds of homes and other buildings collapsed, including nearly all brick structures. The shaking also derailed several freight trains. Surrounding villages were equally devastated both in Turkmenistan and Iran. The Soviet government refused all foreign aid and kept the severity of the disaster secret. Very little information was given to Soviet media. Most aid and restoration of infrastructure was provided by the Red Army. This cloak of secrecy has been blamed by modern scholars for the Soviet government’s poor response to the disaster. The official death toll released in 1988 is 110,000. Estimates run as high as 176,000. Future Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov was orphaned by the disaster, losing his mother and all his siblings in the earthquake. His father died in World War II. This was the worst natural disaster to strike central Asia in the modern era.
September 27, 1290 – Chihli Earthquake – 100,000 dead
It had been eleven years since Kublai Khan completed his great conquest of China and nine years since Khan’s fleet was destroyed by a typhoon while attempting to invade Japan, giving birth to the legend of the “Kamikaze” or “Divine Wind.” His new empire fared much better than his attempted invasions of Japan. Though it was relatively short lived, it finally reunified the traditional lands of China for the first time since the Tang Dynasty fell in 907. At its height in 1294, Khan’s empire controlled more lands than any of the other Chinese empires, comprising nearly all of modern China and Mongolia as well as portions of southeastern Russia and the Korean peninsula.
On September 27, 1290, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through the Ningcheng area near the shores of the Gulf of Chihli (now known as Bo Hai), not far from Tangshan and it was a near carbon copy of the 1976 quake. The soft, silty soil of the region liquefied destroying hundreds of homes and official buildings. 480 storehouses were lost in Ningcheng and at least 7,220 people were killed in that county alone. The Fengguo Temple in Yixian was all but destroyed. Kublai Khan’s son-in-law donated money for its reconstruction. Numerous neighboring counties also suffered greatly. Exactly how many people were killed is unclear, but the toll is believed to have approached 100,000.
November 1, 1755 – Great Lisbon Earthquake – 100,000 dead
“All Saints’ Day”
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is one of history’s most legendary natural disasters. Not only did it devastate Portugal, but it also had profound cultural impacts throughout Western Europe and sparked a revolution in earthquake science. It was All Saints’ Day, an important Christian holiday, particularly in Catholicism, commemorating the souls who have achieved salvation in Heaven. Thousands were in church attending mass that morning.
At about 9:40 am, a massive earthquake with a magnitude of at least 8.5 (possibly as high as 9.0) rippled through the ocean about 150 miles south-southwest of Lisbon. The entire southern half of Portugal shook violently for about four or five minutes. In Lisbon, hundreds of buildings simply collapsed. Fissures 15 feet wide opened up in the city center. Survivors raced to the open areas by the docks to escape the collapsing buildings. Hundreds of them stood and watched as the ocean’s waters receded and then a massive tsunami came and swept them all away. The tsunami inundated the downtown area and the intense surge of water forced the Tagus River to overflow its banks, flooding even more of the city.
The tsunami was felt throughout the Atlantic Basin. Waves as high as 66 feet pounded the shores of Spain and Morocco and were felt all the way across the Atlantic in Barbados and Martinique. Ten foot waves struck Cornwall in southwestern England and the Spanish Arch in Galway, Ireland was partially destroyed by the tsunami. Portugal’s southern coast was devastated, particularly in the Algarve region. Numerous coastal fortresses were destroyed. In Lagos, the waves reached the top of the city walls. Seiches, or stationary waves, were reported as far away as Scotland and Sweden and the quake was felt as far away as Greenland and Finland. In Lisbon, the ruins were quickly swept by fire. The fires lasted for five days and destroyed much of what was left of the city, including the Royal Hospital of All Saints, where hundreds of patients were burned alive.
King Joseph I and the royal family were miraculously unhurt. After attending mass at dawn, the king, his family and the royal entourage left the city, honoring the wishes of one of his daughters that they spend the holiday away from Lisbon. When the king returned, he found the city in ruins. Eighty-five percent of the city was destroyed, including the royal palace and its 70,000 volume library, the brand new opera house, and nearly all of the city’s churches. Few examples of the distinctive architecture of the Manueline era survived the earthquake. The royal archives and other historical records were lost, including detailed documentation of the explorations of Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese explorers.
Despite the earthquake’s fame, debate continues as to just how many people died. The bodies were never counted and few contemporary estimates survive. It’s believed that at least 40,000 people died in Lisbon alone, roughly 20% of the city’s population. Thousands more died elsewhere in Portugal as well as on the Spanish coast. At least 10,000 are thought to have died in Morocco. A best estimate of the death toll from the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks is about 60-70 thousand, with some estimates running as high as 100,000. The earthquake is included on this list for its historical significance.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, Joseph I suffered a nervous breakdown. He developed severe claustrophobia and moved the entire royal court into a tent city in the hills of Ajuda. After his death, a palace was built on the site of the former tent city. Joseph’s prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, spearheaded the reconstruction of the city. A corps of firefighters was commissioned to extinguish the fires and city workers and ordinary citizens were tasked with removing the thousands of bodies from the ruins. In a controversial move, hundreds of corpses were loaded on barges and dumped into the sea beyond the Tagus. This violated the Christian belief that the body must be buried for the soul to rest. Pombal launched a strict anti-looting campaign, issuing a decree that all looters would be summarily hanged and indeed quite a few were hanged on public gallows set up on a high point in the city. The army would occupy the city for months to help maintain order. Beginning in December, the king and Pombal, along with royal engineer Manuel de Maia, launched an ambitious reconstruction plan. The city’s central district was swept clean and rebuilt with wider streets and large squares. “Pombaline” structures were among the first in the world to be built to withstand earthquakes. Pombal had scale models built and then marched troops around them to simulate an earthquake.
The earthquake had a profound cultural impact, not only on Portugal but on most of Europe. It inspired extensive philosophical thought on the sublime. Theologians wondered why God would render such devastation on a devout Catholic city on a major religious holiday. All the churches were destroyed yet the city’s red light district was virtually untouched. This and other philosophical mysteries have been the subject of cultural and religious thought ever since. The earthquake also spurred substantial scientific research and marked the beginning of modern seismology. Pombal sent a query to all parishes in the country asking basic questions about the earthquake (when did it begin, how long did it last, etc). This information proved invaluable in reconstructing the event.
To this day, the earthquake remains ingrained in Portuguese consciousness and signs of it can still be found in Lisbon. The city’s main square, the Praca do Comercio, sits on the site of the former royal palace and is popularly known as the Terreiro do Paco, “paco” meaning “palace.” And in the aftermath of the quake, the ruins of the Carmo Convent were preserved as a permanent reminder of the wrath of God. Today, the ruins are a museum. One can walk through the nave of the church, whose walls hold up only sky.
June 6, 1882 – Great Bombay Cyclone – 100,000 dead
“The Great Drowning”
Bombay, India (now Mumbai), does not have a long history of tropical cyclones. Storms don’t tend to strike the Arabian Sea coast as hard as they do in the Bay of Bengal. The Great Bombay Cyclone was not exceptionally strong, a high-end Category 2, but it brought an 18 foot storm surge right into Bombay harbor just before sunrise on June 6, 1882. The Bombay waterfront was devastated. 100,000 people were reportedly swept away and drowned. Little else is known about the storm.