Great disasters of the last century

When the tsunami struck Southeast Asia recently, it was estimated that up to 145 000 people lost their lives. Was this one of the great disasters of the last 100 years, or have there been others that were even worse?

We live on a dangerous planet. We get to take things for granted, such as that the earth under our feet will remain firm, that we will be able to breathe the air and that seas and rivers will stay in their places. Unfortunately, things can change in an instant.

This is nothing new – it is thought that volcanic blasts could have contributed to the disappearance of the dinosaurs and one only has to think of Noah's flood to realise that disasters are part of the experience of living on earth.

But then the population is also much higher now than it used to be. A flood or an earthquake of the same magnitude that killed 50 people a century ago, might now kill 500 people in the same area.

So what other big disasters have there been in the last 100 years?

Avalanches and landslides

Kansu Province, China, December 16, 1920. In this mountainous northern region, a quake registering 8,6 on the Richter scale unleashed a series of deadly landslides. Together the tremors and slides may have taken as many as 200 000 lives.


Russia, 1921 – 1922. Drought in southern Russia and the Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, led to a famine in which 5 million people may have died.

Earthquakes and tsunamis

Tangshan, China, July 1976. An earthquake registering between 7.8 and 8.2 on the Richter scale, hit the industrial city of Tangshan at 03h45 in the morning. Unofficial estimates of the number of people killed range between 750 000 and 1 million.

South-central Chile. May 21 – 30, 1960. A series of severe quakes killed more than 5,000 Chileans. On May 22, the worst of the tremors generated tsunamis that raced across the Pacific, adding another 450 deaths to the disaster toll.

Kanto plain, Japan. September 1923. This quake registered 8,3 on the Richter scale and was followed by a tsunami. To top it all, fires resulting from the earthquake, killed many thousands of people in Tokyo. Three hundred thousand buildings were destroyed and 143 000 thousand people are thought to have died in this disaster.


Northern China, 1939. Some 500 000 people died when all the region's rivers overflowed at once; millions more may have perished in the ensuing famine.

Northern India. September 1978. The worst monsoons in decades led to devastating floods throughout northern India. Nearly 13 million acres of crops were destroyed, and in Calcutta alone some 15 000 people died.

Hurricanes and typhoons

Galveston, Texas. September 4 1900. The hurricane that hit Galveston, struck mid-morning. Torrential rain accompanying storm caused half the city to be flooded by mid-afternoon. Many residents died inside collapsed buildings or were injured by floating debris. In the city and the adjacent coastline, 13 000 people were killed.

Caribbean (Hurricane Flora). October 2 – 7, 1963. The second deadliest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, Flora began south of Trinidad and crossed the Caribbean to Cuba, killing more than 7 000 people along the way.


Eastern Europe. Typhus. 1914 – 1923. A disease of wartime and crowded, filthy conditions, typhus broke out in a Serbian prisoner-of-war camp during the first year of World War 1. It then spread into the civilian population, and claimed 150 000 lives in six months. Typhus eventually spread to Russia, where in the chaos of the war and the revolution that followed it, some 3 million people died of the disease.

Worldwide. Flu. 1918. This lethal flu is thought to have killed many more people than World War 1 did. The final death toll will never be known, but is thought to be many millions. The disease was often spread by returning soldiers and along sea trade routes and railway lines. Unlike the usual flu, this disease attacked and killed not just the very young and the very old, but decimated many fit, young and healthy people.

US. Polio. Summer, 1946. In the worst outbreak in 30 years, this crippling disease struck more than 25 000 people, most of them children, in 23 states. It was the last major polio epidemic before the development of effective polio vaccines.

India and Pakistan. Smallpox. 1967. In the last major epidemic of smallpox before its worldwide eradication, this age-old killer attacked 2,5 million people and killed 5 000.

Volcanic eruptions

Colombia. 1984. At 7.30 p.m. on November 13, 1984, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, spewing steam and ash over seven towns in the region. Although there was not much lava, the superheated magma inside the volcano began to melt the massive cap of ice at its summit. Filthy water and volcanic debris made rivers burst their banks and rained destruction on the towns in the region. More than 25 000 people died in this disaster.

(Information from the Reader's Digest book on Great Disasters)

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