- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

Hurricane Katrina, which battered cities and leveled outlying communities from Louisiana to Florida with winds as high as 145 mph, likely will rank as one of America’s most deadly natural disasters — and certainly one of its most costly.

Katrina, fed by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, slammed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, leaving in its wake what city and state officials, along with rescue crews, have estimated will be a death toll reaching into the thousands.

With entire communities leveled, businesses in shambles, highways and bridges destroyed, thousands of vehicles ripped apart and essential services ruined, the property damage is inestimable.

The United Nations this week characterized the cataclysmic storm as one of the world’s worst natural disasters in terms of property damage, even outstripping the December tsunami in Asia that killed 180,000 people and caused $10 billion in destruction.

“This is one of the most destructive natural disasters ever measured in the amount of homes destroyed, people affected, people displaced,” said Jan Egeland, the United Nations’ undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

While Katrina certainly has earned her deadly reputation, the storm’s destructive catwalk through America’s underbelly is not the first time the unfettered fury of nature — or even mankind’s own doings — has drowned, burned or buried people in their own homes, schools and workplaces, or spawned legions of refugees desperately seeking rescue, shelter or a drink of water.

The nation has been ravaged in the past 100 years by both natural and man-made disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and explosions, floods, earthquakes — and attacks by terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people and caused $21 billion in damage.

Even New Orleans, which continues to reel from Katrina and the surge of murky and corpse-littered waters it left behind, has been subjected to devastation before — suffering through nine major hurricanes since 1909.

Disasters of catastrophic consequence are no stranger to the Big Easy, whose bizarre love affair with death and the pageantry of funerals has been born amid a continuing onslaught of natural and man-made disasters — probably beginning as early as 1853, when, at a time of exploding financial prosperity and community rebirth, the scourge of yellow fever killed more than 8,000 of its residents.

Residents of the Gulf states and those along the Atlantic Coast also know about potentially disastrous hurricanes.

More than 90 million people — from Texas to southeastern Massachusetts — live within 50 miles of the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean and, according to government estimates, face the probability of at least one major Category 3 or Category 4 hurricane every four years.

Since 1900, those regions have been hit 37 times by what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center classifies as a “major” hurricane, meaning that more than 25 people were killed. Those hurricanes resulted in 15,522 deaths, with the most frequently hit states being Florida, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Mississippi.

Seeking to make the country more secure against such disasters, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, has scheduled hearings “once the Katrina crisis has stabilized” to ensure federal, state and local authorities are prepared to properly respond to future incidents.

“We know there will be more natural disasters, and it’s almost as certain that there will be additional attempts by terrorists to attack major American cities and do as much damage as possible,” Mr. Kyl said. “If we can learn from this experience, there will be at least one positive result of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.”

The most devastating hurricane on record in terms of fatalities, according to the National Weather Service, occurred in 1900 when an unnamed Category 4 storm slammed ashore in Galveston, Texas, killing an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people. That treacherous storm struck with little warning on Sept. 8, 1900, leveling a dozen city blocks — about three-quarters of the city.

The nation’s other most deadly hurricanes include:

• The so-called Okeechobee storm of 1928, which made landfall at Palm Beach, Fla., and killed an estimated 2,500 people. After ravaging Puerto Rico, the Category 4 storm slammed into Florida, destroying a levee along Lake Okeechobee. Most of the storm victims drowned.

• A Category 4 storm that hit the Florida Keys in September 1919, crossing the Gulf of Mexico to push into Corpus Christi, Texas. The death toll was estimated at between 600 and 900 people, many of whom were on boats in the Gulf.

• A Category 3 hurricane that struck Long Island, N.Y., on Sept. 21, 1938, at high tide, later moving into other areas of New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. A storm surge of 16 feet flooded rivers across the region, destroying 8,000 homes, 6,000 boats and killing 600 people.

• The “Great Labor Day” hurricane of September 1935, a Category 5 storm described at the time as the most intense hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. It ravaged the Florida Keys, killing 423 persons. A train sent to rescue World War I veterans working on a government building was derailed by rain and high winds.

The costliest hurricane in U.S. history at $26.5 billion — pending damage assessments from Katrina — was Hurricane Andrew, which struck with a fury in southeast Florida and south-central Louisiana after cutting a deadly path through the Bahamas. The Category 5 storm made landfall on Aug. 24, 1992, near Homestead, Fla., killing 15 persons and leaving 250,000 others homeless.

Killer quakes

Several major earthquakes have struck the United States over the past 100 years, beginning in San Francisco in April 1906, when a 7.7-magnitude quake — accompanied by a fire that razed more than 4 square miles of the city — killed more than 500 people.

Other deadly tremors took place in Long Beach, Calif., in March 1933, killing 117; Alaska in March 1964, when the strongest earthquake ever to strike North America — 9.2-magnitude — triggered a 50-foot tsunami and killed 117; and Northridge, Calif., in January 1994, when a 6.7-magnitude quake killed 61 and injured more than 8,000.

According to the National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, the Northridge quake struck at 4:31 a.m. about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles and caused damages estimated in excess of $20 billion — the costliest seismic disaster in U.S. history.

Thousands of aftershocks, many in the 4.0-magnitude to 5.0-magnitude range, occurred during the next few weeks, further damaging already affected structures, the center said, adding that 9,000 homes and businesses were without electricity, 20,000 were without gas and more than 48,500 had little or no water.

In terms of financial loss, the center described the Northridge quake as one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, comparable to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Terrible twisters

Tornadoes, those violently rotating columns of potential death and destruction extending from a thunderstorm to the ground, are considered among nature’s most virulent storms. In an average year, about 800 tornadoes are reported across the United States, resulting in 80 deaths and more than 1,500 injuries, according to the National Weather Service.

The worst tornadoes are capable of significant destruction, with wind speeds in excess of 250 mph. They can occur anywhere in the United States at any time of the year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The so-called “Tri-State Tornado” that struck Missouri, Illinois and Indiana in March 1925 is considered the most violent single twister in U.S. history, causing the deaths of 689 persons and injuring more than 2,000. Property damage was estimated at $16.5 million.

In April 1974, a series of 148 twisters over a 16-hour period became known as the deadly “Super Tornado Outbreak.” The tornadoes hit 13 states in the East, South and Midwest, killing 330 and injuring 5,484 in a swatch that covered more than 2,500 miles. Damage estimates were put at $600 million.

Manmade mayhem

The two dozen most deadly fires and explosions since 1900 in the United States have claimed 4,194 lives, including 602 who died in December 1903 in a blaze at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, and 516 who were killed in April 1947 in Texas City, Texas, when most of the city was destroyed by a fire and subsequent explosion on the French freighter Grandcamp, which was carrying a cargo of ammonium nitrate. More than 3,000 were injured.

The worst flood in U.S. history occurred in May 1889 in Pennsylvania when a dam broke and triggered what became know as the Johnstown Flood. The dam break sent 20 million tons of water in a giant wave through Johnstown, killing more than 2,300 people and destroying the homes of thousands more.

Many consider the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by al Qaeda terrorists the nation’s most devastating man-made disaster. The commandeered aircraft killed nearly 3,000 people on the ground and in the four fuel-laden aircraft that were hijacked by 19 Islamic radicals.

Two of the planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York — one into each of the twin towers — within 17 minutes of each other. A third aircraft crashed into the Pentagon and the fourth plane crashed into a rural field near Shanksville, Pa., after passenger resistance.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 commission, said the attackers turned the hijacked planes into the largest suicide bombs in history and the most lethal acts ever carried out in the United States. It said the attack was arguably the most significant event to have occurred so far in the 21st century in terms of the profound economic, social, cultural and military effects that followed.

Coincidentally, September is National Preparedness Month, a nationwide coordinated effort held each year to encourage Americans to take simple steps to prepare for emergencies in their homes, businesses and schools.

“The devastation and tragic loss of life caused by Hurricane Katrina … reinforces the urgency of our coalition’s work,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. “We urge all Americans to take some simple steps to prepare for emergencies, including getting an emergency-supply kit, making a family emergency plan and learning more about how to respond to emergencies that could affect your area.”

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