Top Ten Worst Natural Disasters in History

Updated on August 7, 2019
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

2010 Haiti Earthquake. Notice the tremendous damage and destruction to the surrounding area.
2010 Haiti Earthquake. Notice the tremendous damage and destruction to the surrounding area. | Source

#10: 2010 Haiti Earthquake (100,000 to 230,000 Deaths)

On 12 January 2010, a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck approximately sixteen miles west of Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince. Occurring at approximately 4:53 PM, the earthquake was felt by nearly three million people, and set off an additional 52 aftershocks during the two weeks that followed (4.5 magnitude or higher). Poor housing conditions, lack of preparation, and a lack of earthquake retrofitting proved catastrophic for the small island nation, resulting in the destruction of 250,000+ homes, along with the collapse of 30,000+ commercial buildings. Death tolls are difficult to estimate, and have been a matter of dispute for years. The Haitian government claims that approximately 222,000 people were killed. However, several investigations by foreign organizations have charged the Haitian government with artificially inflating numbers to receive greater humanitarian aid. More modern estimates place the number of dead at approximately 100,000.

Recovery from the earthquake was problematic for several years, as nearly all of the country’s communication systems, transport facilities, hospitals, and infrastructure were severely damaged (or destroyed beyond repair) by the quake. Despite a rapid humanitarian response by the international community, poor coordination amongst rescue crews only added to the volatile situation, as medical supplies, food, and water rarely reached the worst-hit areas of Haiti (leading to protests and violence by the country’s residents). Current estimates place the cost of the damage at $7.8 Billion to $8.5 Billion, making it one of the worst disasters in human history.

2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami.  Notice the extreme flooding caused by the large waves.
2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami. Notice the extreme flooding caused by the large waves. | Source

#9: 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake (230,000 to 280,000 Deaths)

On 26 December 2005, an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.3 struck the Indian Ocean, just west of Sumatra’s northern coastline. The megathrust earthquake is believed to have been caused by a rupture along the fault that lies between both the Burma and Indian Tectonic Plates. Due to its intensity, a series of tsunami waves reaching heights of 100 feet were sent hurdling towards the coastlines surrounding the Indian Ocean, with Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka being the most affected areas (with dire results). The earthquake was the third largest ever recorded in history, and lasted an astounding eight to nine minutes.

The resulting tsunami took the region by surprise, as waves travelling at approximately 310 to 620 MPH slammed local coastlines within hours (and in some areas, only a matter of minutes). Waves were noticed as far away as Struisbaai, South Africa (nearly 5,300 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter). In total, 227,898 people were killed by the large waves, with Indonesia experiencing the largest number of casualties. Rapid humanitarian relief from the international community is credited with saving countless lives during the disaster, as approximately 1.7 million people were directly impacted by the tsunami. Providing financial resources along with fresh water, food, and sanitation facilities helped contain the spread of disease, starvation, and dehydration considerably. In total, the international community contributed nearly $14 Billion dollars to the eighteen nations affected by the disaster. Damages from the catastrophic event are estimated at $15 Billion dollars.

1920 Haiyuan Earthquake.
1920 Haiyuan Earthquake.

#8: 1920 Haiyuan Earthquake (273,400 Deaths)

On 16 December 1920, a catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake occurred in Haiyuan Country, Ningxia Province, Republic of China killing an estimated 273,400 people (including individuals that died months later from complications). The quake resulted in a large number of aftershocks and landslides that contributed significantly to the overall damage. Moreover, numerous rivers were dammed from the sudden jarring motion of the quake, resulting in extreme flooding as the course of some rivers were completely diverted. In total, some 20,000 square kilometers were directly affected by the earthquake. Despite the tremendous death toll, many researchers believe that the event could have been far worse if not for the fact that the quake occurred in a predominantly rural area (away from many of China’s major cities).

Although the 1920 Haiyuan Earthquake is considered one of the worst natural disasters in human history, it is also one of the most ignored tragedies of the 20th-Century due to the political and social issues occurring in China during this time period. The quake was largely overshadowed by a drought famine occurring during the time that affected nearly twenty to thirty million people in Northern China (known as the Gansu Famine). As a result, humanitarian efforts for the disaster’s victims were relatively modest, with most funds and aid sent to famine victims instead. To make matters worse, much of the foreign relief provided to China during this time was pocketed by the corrupt Beiyang government. Damages from the event were estimated to be around $20 Million ($256 Million in modern times, when adjusted for inflation).

1976 Tangshan Earthquake. One of the most devastating earthquakes in human history.
1976 Tangshan Earthquake. One of the most devastating earthquakes in human history.

#7: 1976 Tangshan Earthquake (255,000 Deaths; 700,000 Injured)

On 28 July 1976, a catastrophic earthquake struck Tangshan, Hebei, People’s Republic of China at approximately 3:42 in the morning. Measuring in as a 7.6 magnitude quake, the city of Tangshan which possessed nearly a million residents, were taken completely by surprise, as nearly eighty-five percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed in a matter of minutes. At least 255,000 people died in the disaster, with several hundred thousand others seriously wounded. The Tangshan Earthquake was particularly bad (and unique) in that the quake involved two separate shocks (one occurring in the morning, with the other happening later that afternoon). Nearly all of the city’s services failed as a result of the quake, along with most of the area’s infrastructure (including railways, highways, and bridges). Twelve additional aftershocks also occurred in the days that followed, with magnitudes of at least six or greater, laying waste to many of China’s coal mines in the area, and damaging infrastructure as far away as Beijing.

Despite failing to predict the earthquake ahead of time, the Chinese government proved very capable in handling the emergency; deploying its emergency units and relief in both a systematic and organized manner within hours. The rapid response proved instrumental in averting further fatalities, as the establishment of sanitation facilities and distribution of food/water helped to greatly reduce the impact of disease and starvation. To the current day, the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 is considered to be the third deadliest quake in human history with a recorded intensity of XI (Extreme) on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale. Damages from the quake are estimated to have cost nearly 10 Billion Chinese Yuan.

Antioch during the 6th Century.
Antioch during the 6th Century. | Source

#6: 526 Antioch Earthquake (250,000 to 300,000 Deaths)

In May of 526 AD, a massive earthquake hit Syria during the mid-morning hours, claiming at least 250,000 lives. Scientists believe that the earthquake was likely a 7.0 magnitude quake, with a Mercalli Intensity Scale rating between VIII (Severe) and IX (Violent). As its name implies, the disaster took place primarily around the ancient city of Antioch (the quake’s epicenter), causing severe damage to the city’s buildings and infrastructure, including Constantine’s Domus Aurea church. The most devastating aspect of the quake, however, lies with the largescale fire that erupted during its aftermath. Lasting nearly a week, the fire destroyed nearly all of Antioch’s buildings, and claimed numerous lives, including the famous Euphrasius (Patriarch of Antioch). Death tolls vary significantly due to the lack of documentation available from this time period. Scholars believe, however, that between 250,000 and 300,000 individuals lost their lives. Historians attribute the high number of fatalities to the fact that large numbers of visitors were present to celebrate Ascension Day in the city. Justin I is reported to have publicly mourned for the city’s destruction in the months that followed, sending money and immediate relief so that Antioch could be rebuilt with haste. Currently, the 526 Earthquake is considered the second worst earthquake in human history.

1839 Coringa Cyclone (Artistic Depiction).  Following this disaster, the city of Coringa never again thrived as a major trading port.
1839 Coringa Cyclone (Artistic Depiction). Following this disaster, the city of Coringa never again thrived as a major trading port. | Source

"The Bay of Bengal is hit frequently by cyclones. The months of November and May, in particular, are dangerous in this regard."

— Abdul Kalam

#5: 1839 Coringa Cyclone (300,000 Deaths)

On 25 November 1839, a massive cyclone struck Coringa, India (a harbor city in Andhra Pradesh), producing a 40-foot high storm surge that devastated the city. In its wake, the storm left 300,000 people dead, and destroyed over 25,000 ships, making it one of the deadliest storms in human history. Located on the Bay of Bengal, Coringa was once a busy port city, serving as a crucial source for trade between India and the world at large. Although Coringa had sustained massive cyclones in the past, including the Great Coringa Cyclone of 1789 that killed over 20,000 people, the city always rebounded from these natural disasters with ease, becoming both prosperous and heavily populated by the mid-1800s.

Although little is known about the storm, due to a lack of sufficient records, scholars believe that the city’s inhabitants were taken completely by surprise once the cyclone made landfall. This is due, in part, because of the fact that the storm occurred unusually late in the Bay of Bengal’s cyclone season. Following its devastating 40-foot storm surge, very few survived to tell about the disaster. Wreckage from the city’s vast number of ships was found miles inland, while Coringa, itself, was literally wiped off the map. Coringa never recovered from the cyclone, as the city’s survivors made no attempt to rebuild in the years and decades that followed. To this day, Coringa remains a small village area; a mere shadow of its former glory.

1970 Bhola Cyclone.
1970 Bhola Cyclone.

#4: 1970 Bhola Cyclone (500,000 Deaths)

On 12 November 1970, a powerful cyclone made landfall along the coast of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), inflicting massive damage on the poorly-prepared region. Reaching sustained winds of 115 MPH, the storm delivered a 33-foot high storm surge that devastated local communities. Approximately 3.6 million people were directly impacted by the storm, with nearly eighty-five percent of all homes and buildings destroyed (or severely damaged) along the coast. The powerful cyclone is believed to have killed nearly 500,000 people, including 46,000 fishermen (crippling the area’s fishing capabilities for several years, as 9,000 boats were also destroyed). Landslides, flooding, and torrential rain also destroyed countless crops and livestock in both India and Pakistan during the weeks that followed.

Although international aid was swift, the Pakistani government was slow to respond to the crisis; making conditions on the ground very difficult for the region’s survivors in the days and weeks that followed. Rather than opening its borders to foreign relief efforts, the Pakistani government purposely delayed numerous supply drops and convoys loaded with medical supplies, food, and water due to political indifference to the crisis. The government’s mishandling of the disaster eventually led to a split within East Pakistan that eventually developed into the Bangladesh Liberation War only a few months later. To this day, the 1970 Bhola Cyclone is considered the deadliest tropical cyclone on record, costing an estimated $86.4 Million Dollars in damages.

1556 Shaanxi Earthquake map of affected areas.
1556 Shaanxi Earthquake map of affected areas. | Source

#3: 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake (830,000 Deaths)

On the morning of 23 January 1556, China’s Ming Dynasty witnessed the most powerful earthquake in human history around its Shaanxi Province. The earthquake, which is believed to have been an 8.0 magnitude quake (according to modern calculations), affected an 840-Kilometer area (approximately 520-square miles), and included 97 different counties in China. With many of Shaanxi’s population living in yaodongs at this time (artificial caves built into cliffs), the quake was particularly devastating due to the fact that many of these caves simply collapsed, killing thousands in their homes. In many areas, imperial records from the time indicate that over sixty-percent of the region’s population was killed by the quake. In total, official records indicate that over 830,000 Chinese people lost their lives from the disaster, as countless landslides, flooding (from blocked waterways), and aftershocks (that lasted for half a year) wreaked havoc on the area. Places as far as 310 miles from the quake’s epicenter also experienced death and destruction, with buildings in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu incurring significant structural damage from the disaster.

Although the 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake may have had an overall magnitude smaller than more modern quakes, the widespread death and destruction it inflicted is second to none; making this event one of the worst natural disasters in history.

1887 Yellow River Flood.
1887 Yellow River Flood. | Source

#2: 1887 Yellow River Flood (900,000 Deaths)

In September of 1887, torrential rains resulted in one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, as China’s Yellow River escaped its banks and flooded an estimated 50,000 square miles of Northern China. Scholars attribute the disaster to farmers living near the river who – over a period of several centuries – constructed elaborate dikes to prevent the Yellow River from naturally flooding each year. With centuries of silt depositing itself along the bottom of the river (due to its inability to flood outward), water levels naturally rose as a result; swelling the Yellow River to unprecedented heights in the years that followed. As heavy rain set in for several days in September 1887, dikes near the city of Zhengzhou (Henan Province) could no longer hold the water at bay, allowing the river to flow uncontrollably throughout the low-lying plains that surrounded it. As additional dikes broke, entire regions were engulfed with floodwater within moments. As the water finally receded weeks later, nearly two million Chinese were left homeless, while approximately 900,000 others were killed by the devastating flood. Lack of preparation, combined with poor government response only exacerbated the volatile situation on the ground, as basic necessities such as food and water remained scarce commodities for weeks. To this day, the 1887 Yellow River Flood remains one of the world’s worst natural disasters in terms of both devastation and deaths.

1931 Central China Flood. Notice the government building underwater in the background.
1931 Central China Flood. Notice the government building underwater in the background.

#1: Central China Flood of 1931 (2 Million to 3.7 Million Deaths)

In 1931, China experienced the worst natural disaster in human history as floods from the Yellow, Yangzi, Pearl, and Huai rivers (combined with flooding from the Grand Canal) inundated much of Central China. The disaster was the result of numerous factors, occurring over a period of several months. Melting ice and snow from China’s mountains combined with heavy rains throughout the spring, summer, and autumn forced each of China’s major rivers outside of their banks, resulting in a flood zone that covered an area approximately 180,000 square kilometers (Equivalent to the size of England and half of Scotland combined). At its peak, scholars estimate that as many as 53 million people were directly affected by the flooding, with death tolls reaching an estimated 3.7 million people.

Apart from the tremendous human toll, the great flood was also responsible for destroying huge swathes of farmland and housing (resulting in famine the following year). Diseases such as measles, cholera, malaria, schistosomiasis, and dysentery also spread rapidly due to the intense flooding, as sanitation began to systematically breakdown across the region due to overcrowding and the displacement of millions. Although international relief was quick, the invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese (Late 1931) only added to the turmoil, causing the Chinese Bond Market to collapse in response.

As of 2019, the Central China Flood of 1931 remains the world’s worst (and deadliest) natural disaster in history, with overall damage costs impossible to calculate due to the tremendous destruction involved.

Poll

Do you agree that the Central China Flood of 1931 is the worst natural disaster in history?

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Suggestions For Further Reading:

Books:

Courtney, Chris. The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Freeburg, Jessica. Collapse and Chaos: The Story of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti. North Mankato, Minnesota: Capstone Press, 2017.

Works Cited:

Articles / Books:

Devastating Disasters. Accessed August 06, 2019. https://devastatingdisasters.com/antioch-earthquake/.

"1839- Coringa Cyclone." Hurricanes. Accessed August 06, 2019. http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/storms/pre1900s/1839/.

"2010 Haiti Earthquake: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help." World Vision. June 26, 2019. Accessed August 06, 2019. https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-relief-news-stories/2010-haiti-earthquake-facts.

"Deadliest Earthquake in History Rocks China." History.com. November 13, 2009. Accessed August 06, 2019. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/deadliest-earthquake-in-history-rocks-china.

National Geographic Society. "Floods Devastate Eastern China." National Geographic Society. November 06, 2013. Accessed August 06, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/aug18/floods-devastate-eastern-china/.

"Tsunami of 2004 Fast Facts." CNN. December 06, 2018. Accessed August 06, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/23/world/tsunami-of-2004-fast-facts/index.html.

Images/Photographs:

Wikipedia contributors, "1887 Yellow River flood," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1887_Yellow_River_flood&oldid=898435561 (accessed August 2, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Coringa, East Godavari district," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Coringa,_East_Godavari_district&oldid=899996501(accessed August 2, 2019).

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Larry Slawson

    Comments

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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        4 days ago from North Carolina

        Thank you so much Linda! Until I did my research for this topic, there was about six of these events that I had never heard of either. Its crazy that one event can claim so many lives (in such a short amount of time).

      • lindacee profile image

        Linda Chechar 

        4 days ago from Arizona

        The largest natural disasters in history are tragic events. I had never heard of at least six of the disasters. Your depth of research is amazing!

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        13 days ago from North Carolina

        Thank you Pamela! Yeah, I was shocked at how bad each of these were; especially the Central China Flood of 1931.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        13 days ago from Sunny Florida

        These disasters are horrid and I did not know about some of them. You covered these disasters very thoroughly. Obviously, you did some research.

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        13 days ago from North Carolina

        Haha, thank you Vivian. I'm glad you enjoyed :)

      • Noelle7 profile image

        Vivian Coblentz 

        2 weeks ago

        This article reminds me of the "I Survived..." book series by Lauren Tarshis my kids read! Very informative and well-researched.

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        2 weeks ago from North Carolina

        Thank you my friend :) So glad you enjoy. Yeah, I was totally shocked by how many people died in these events. Its crazy that so many people literally disappeared overnight in these disasters.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Larry your work is just great. Numbers like these are just mind boggling. Thanks for another great lesson.

        We are going to be ramping up the reading time to "get back to school" mode. You are on the top of the reading list. So little time to learn from Larry.

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        2 weeks ago from North Carolina

        Thank you Liz :) Yeah, there were several on this list that I had never heard of before either. I was surprised that the majority of these disasters have occurred in China over the years. Really sad.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        2 weeks ago from UK

        You have done good research on this article. Many of these I was unaware of. Others I know of didn't make the top ten like the Lisbon natural disaster and the earthquake in Sicily. It's staggering to see the figures over the years.

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