Natural Disasters & Extreme Weather in the U.S. Through History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Natural disasters have had a major impact on American history. In this lesson, we'll look at four specific disasters and see how they affected people throughout history.

Extreme Weather in American History

When it snows, you get a snow day. We understand how weather can affect our lives because we spend a lot of time talking, hoping, and thinking about different weather conditions. Rain would be nice today, or maybe sunshine for the weekend. How we react to various kinds of weather says a lot about us, but it can also say a lot about our government and society. This is especially true when dealing with natural disasters, events that are created by nature and result in substantial damage or loss of life. In fact, these sorts of events have actually shaped American political and cultural values several times across history. Don't believe me? Well then, let's take a look at a few times when America had a bit more to deal with than just a day off from school.

The 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes

On December 16 of 1811 in the small frontier town of New Madrid in what is now Missouri, people were fast asleep when somewhere deep below the earth ancient fault lines in the middle of a major tectonic plate shifted. The resulting vibrations sped through the surface, unleashing a massive earthquake around 2:15 in the morning. Luckily New Madrid was a very small town in a region that was sparsely populated, so there was very little loss of life, but residents of the time described entire forests of trees being shaken from the ground, the earth itself rolling in large hills, and massive waves appearing on the river. The earthquake had a magnitude, a strength, of around 7.5, which is really strong. The vibrations were felt as far away as South Carolina and Ohio, and were strong enough to topple chimneys and ring church bells in those states. In Tennessee, the earthquake actually collapsed an area of land so large that when the rivers flowed into it, it formed an entire lake, today called Reelfoot Lake. Two more earthquakes hit in early 1812, on January 23 and February 7, each as strong as the first. It was a reminder that earthquakes can, and do, happen anywhere.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Missouri was not the only place to experience major earthquakes. A century later, on April 18, 1906, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the California city of San Francisco. Now, California gets lots of earthquakes, but not like this. The vibrations shook the city to the ground, which was especially a problem because most of the city was made of wood. Fires quickly grew and spread, destroying most of the city. When it was all over, about 80% of San Francisco had been destroyed and roughly 3,000 people had been killed, making this one of the deadliest disasters in US history. This event made people realize that San Francisco, and other major cities, were dreadfully unprepared for major natural disasters, and they started looking for solutions. In the case of San Francisco, the nearby valley of Hetch Hetchy was dammed and turned into a fresh water reservoir, starting a decade-long argument about whether it was more important to protect human cities or to protect and conserve natural wildernesses.

San Francisco after the earthquake
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The 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens

The San Francisco earthquake in 1906 unleashed massive fires, but that was nothing compared to what was unleashed by the 1980 earthquakes in the state of Washington. Two full months of minor earthquakes managed to severely weaken the long-dormant volcano called Mount St. Helens, and on May 18 of 1980 another earthquake finally managed to knock a major chunk of the mountain loose, forming the largest landslide ever recorded. As this happened, the mountainside became too weak to hold in the magma at the heart of the mountain and Mount St. Helens exploded. The column of steam, ash and magma that erupted from Mount St. Helens was roughly 80,000 feet tall, spreading ash across 11 different states and 5 Canadian provinces. The heat melted nearby glaciers, causing floods that washed lava and mud up to 50 miles to the southwest. The result was a little over a billion dollars in property damage and the loss of about 57 lives.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens
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