What and Where were the Worst Natural Disasters?

The 2007 Bulgarian heat wave triggered wildfires leading to a state of emergency being declared in three southern towns

The 2007 Bulgarian heat wave triggered wildfires leading to a state of emergency being declared in three southern towns

Have you ever wondered if one earthquake or flood or heat wave was more deadly than another? Although Wikipedia is eschewed by many scholarly readers, some pages contain fascinating (and sometimes unconfirmed) information. Their “List of natural disasters by death toll” is one such page, and you can find a warning on that page that most numbers are estimates and often are in dispute.

With that said, this Wikipedia page also contains some information that could galvanize further research. For instance, many climate change advocates might look at the list for “Ten deadliest heat waves” and be quite satisfied that most of the deadliest heat waves occurred within the past twenty years. But, a researcher would want to know more about how this information was gathered. A link to the Heat Wave page at Wikipedia can offer more information. But, a Web-wide search actually turns up more information at sites such as the Weather Channel and research papers such as the one at The SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System site offer even more information about current heat waves and historic comparisons.

In all, even if you include only those heat incidents shown on the original list at Wikipedia, approximately 60,000+ people died from heat exposure over the past three decades. If you realize that annual mortality from tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods together averages under 200 people per year, and that heat wave deaths over the past thirty years comes to 2,000 per year (a full ten times the amount of those who die by tornadoes, earthquakes and floods), then why don’t more people panic over heat wave impacts?

Perhaps people do not panic about heat wave deaths, because many tornadoes, earthquakes and floods are difficult if not impossible to predict. Heat waves, on the other hand, are predictable and warnings about what could happen to a person exposed to extreme heat and how to prevent heat-related death are facts that are well known. At least, most local weather channels will repeat warnings consistently until a heat wave recedes.

One reason why so many people die in heat waves could be that many people today now live alone. In Chicago, one month after the 1995 heat wave, county officials buried 68 people, most of them heat-wave victims, in a 160-foot-long trench. That 1995 Chicago heat wave was one horrific event with some peculiar responses. In 2002, Dr. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and the author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, reported:

From the moment the local medical examiner began to report heat-related mortality figures, political leaders, journalists, and in turn the Chicago public have actively denied the disaster’s significance and questioned whether the deaths were – to use the popular local phrase – “really real.” Although so many city residents died that the coroner had to call in nine refrigerated trucks to store the bodies, skepticism about the trauma continues today. In Chicago, people still debate whether the medical examiner exaggerated the numbers and wonder if the crisis was a “media event” that the press had “propped up somehow.” The American Journal of Public Health definitively established that the medical examiner’s numbers actually undercounted the mortality by about 250 since hundreds of bodies were buried before they could be autopsied. But how many people read the American Journal of Public Health? For now, the heat wave stands as a nonevent – perhaps a footnote – in the grand narrative of affluence and revitalization that dominates accounts of urban life in the 1990s.

Kleinberg also noted in The New York Times that, “When I interviewed Chicago residents, they usually remembered a death toll of about 100, and generally questioned whether the medical examiner had fabricated the figures or if the media had turned a nonevent into headline news.” The actual death toll in that 1995 heat wave, in one week, came to 739 people.

The question that Kleinberg posed was how so many people could die in a natural disaster and be denied the same recognition that is offered to people who die in tidal waves or earthquakes. He also wanted to know how these deaths could be prevented, especially when – compared to the cleanup costs and refunds the federal government routinely doles out to homeowners and corporations who suffer property damage in other disasters – the costs of preventing heat deaths are low.

Are heat deaths part of a social leaning that sees coastal residents as more valuable than inner-city heat victims? Dr. Kleinberg asks that question, and fortunately Chicago responded to the call to protect their most vulnerable residents. Chicago, which took criticism for its response to the 1995 heat wave, improved its systems to the point where a 1999 heat wave comparable in intensity to the one of 1995 killed only 110 people.

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