"The Worst Natural Disaster in American History"

This morning on Fox News Sunday, the President’s new Chief of Staff, Josh Bolton said something in passing that has become conventional wisdom in Washington on both sides of the aisle. Talking about the many reasons for high gas prices, Bolton mentioned Hurricane Katrina and the damage it did to drilling and refining operations in the Gulf of Mexico, calling last August’s storm “the worst natural disaster in American history.” My own quick search turned up several similar comments, many made in the last couple weeks, including statements by House Minority Leader John Boehner, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joe Lieberman.

Undoubtedly Katrina was and continues to be a major tragedy, but is it the worst natural disaster in American history? Very good arguments could be made for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1900 Galveston hurricane. But this isn’t an argument we seem to be having. Even the Bay Area media seems to have conceded primacy to Katrina, commonly referring in its 100th anniversary coverage of 1906 to the quake as “the worst natural disaster in American history up to that time.” (Emphasis added.) Thus common knowledge seems to have settled what is really a pretty complex problem of historical analysis, judging Katrina “worst.”

This is a powerful example of popular historical production. My guess is that it will be a long time before professional historians revisit the question of “worst.” In the meantime, right or wrong, the popular judgement will stand as historical truth. Sometimes to historians’ surprise, sometimes to their chagrin, this is often how history is made.

3 Replies to “"The Worst Natural Disaster in American History"”

  1. Once again the demogouges prevail. Historical fact not withstanding, the demogouges and Bush haters with political agendas have convinced the public that Katrina was the worst natural disaster in US history. They conveniently forget the 1900 Galvenston hurricane and the 1906 San francisco earthquake.

    Some would have you believe that some kind of conspiracy was involved in the aftermath of Katrina by FEMA and the Bush administration, i.e. bombing of the levy, denial of assistance to residents of New Orleans because the majority of those affected were Black, failure to dispatch US troops in a timely manner. Somehow disregarding “Posse Comitatus” and fact that the Govener has to request this assistance. Shame, Shame, the US public have somehow become like the mythical lemmings following the lead of self serving demogouges, self appointed leaders and a biased media.

  2. It’s funny how the 1900 storm had 6,000 innocent lives perish, yet, Katrina, with it’s 1,500 victims, is considered “worse.” Maybe it’s because of the demographic, maybe it’s because they want to hammer in a nail for the “worst president in US History.” Who knows? All I know is that people have to be idiots to think that Katrina was worse than the 1900 Storm. Money-wise, it was worse (but are we considering inflation/deflation since 1900?), victim-wise, Galveston wins 4 times over. It’s a disgrace and an outrage to those who lost their lives here in 1900 for the “experts” to say otherwise. Oh, yea: and it wasn’t just the Hurricane that killed those in Katrina, it was the levy breaking. Our 6,000 residents died from the hurricane itself. Thanks.

  3. Once again, non-research prevails. The worst disaster in US history was the flu pandemic in 1918 which killed over half a milllion Americans. I did not live through that, the earthquake in San Francisco, or the Galveston Hurricane. My guess is neither did you. But, I did live through Katrina. I am not African American, and despite what you may “believe” we were barely given government assistance. The help we received came from loans and U.S. citizens, who instead of being upset by a sentence in a paper or spoken on the news, donated food, clothing, and money. Are the lives lost in Katrina any less innocent? It’s a disgrace and an outrage to compare deaths. Regardless of what any newspaper or reporter says, 6000 people dead or 2000 people dead is still tragic. And our residents died from Hurricane Katrina, which caused the breach in the levees…..So, oh yeah, Katrina killed the residents of Southest Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, & Florida. Had Katrina missed us, there would have been no storm surge, just F.Y.I. What is truly a disgrace is that people choose to compare which tragedy is worse and say that some deaths are worse because of location. One person dying in ANY disaster is tragic. And save your backlash……I do not believe that Katrina is the worst National disaster and I live in New Orleans…..And I will not bother to read your ridiculous comments. Tragedy is tragedy…period!

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