By Brendan Loy
[UPDATE, 2:00 PM MDT: Since I composed this post, the death toll has risen from 247 to 272. So yesterday’s disaster is now #8 on the list below, #6 if you exclude manmade disasters, #4 if you also exclude heat waves, or #3 if you do all of that and you think the listed “Storm of the Century” toll is inflated (some accounts have it much lower). Among natural disasters, only Hurricane Katrina, the 1980 and 1995 heat waves, and the 1974 Tornado Super Outbreak are clearly deadlier — and yesterday may yet surpass the latter. God Almighty.
Original post below.]
The official death toll in yesterday’s epic, calamitous tornado outbreak is now at 247, including 162 in Alabama alone. Judging by this Wikipedia page listing all “United States disasters” — both manmade and natural — by death toll, it will go down as one of the deadliest disasters of the last 60 years. (And yet, somehow, the media coverage doesn’t seem commensurate with the scale of the catastrophe.) Here are the Top 15:
1. September 11, 2001 attacks – 2,973
2. Hurricane Katrina, 2005 – 1,836
3. United States Heat Wave of 1980 – ~1,700
4. Chicago Heat Wave of 1995 – 739
5. Tornado Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974 – 315
6. “Storm of the Century” blizzard, 1993 – 310
7. American Airlines Flight 191 crash, 1979 – 273
8(t). Midwest/Northeast heat wave, 1999 – 271
8(t). Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak, 1965 – 271
10. Hurricane Camille, 1969 – 256
11. American Airlines Flight 586 crash, 2001 – 265
12. Great Tornado Outbreak of April 27, 2011 – 247
13. Rapid City Flood of 1972 – 238
14. TWA Flight 800 crash, 1996 – 230
15. EgyptAir Flight 900 crash, 1999 – 217
That list includes all U.S. disasters that killed 200 or more people. If we exclude manmade disasters (9/11 and the other plane crashes), so it’s just a list of natural disasters, the list shrinks to 10, and yesterday’s outbreak moves up from #12 to #9. If we also eliminate heat waves, which happen over a longer period of time than a tornado outbreak or a hurricane or a blizzard, yesterday ranks #6 — or maybe #5, given that the “Storm of the Century” death toll is disputed, and by some accounts isn’t even over 100. And of course, yesterday’s toll is still climbing. Conceivably, it could end up trailing only 9/11, Katrina, and the 1980 and 1995 heat waves on the above list — though, for God’s sake, let’s hope and pray not.
(I only went back 60 years, by the way, because once you hit 1950 as you go backward in time on the list, mass-casualty events in this country become much more common. Just from 1940-1950, there were five disasters that killed 200+ people, versus the 15 you see above from 1951-2011. In the 1930s, there were six. And so on. We used to be much more vulnerable to mass-casualty calamities. But in the last sixty years, such events have been thankfully rare — just two-and-a-half per decade, judging by this metric. Yesterday, tragically, we experienced one of the very few to break that modern mold.)
And now, having said all that, let me make a point that runs completely counter to this post. There’s a certain slightly ghoulish quality to these sorts of death toll comparisons, as if there’s somehow a competition to prove that the latest disaster is the worst ever, or among the worst ever, or worse than X or Y previous disaster. I’m as guilty as anyone, indeed much moreso than some, but I also acknowledge the validity of the criticism. I’m reminded of something I wrote back in 2005, shortly after my life was impacted by two major tragedies, one national and one personal: Hurricane Katrina, and the death of my friend Sarah. Reflecting on this very issue, I wrote:
On a more philosophical note, one thing Sarah’s death has reminded me of is what you might call the “equality of tragedy” principle. We sometimes get hung up on comparing mega-tragedies: “ranking” a tragedy like Katrina among the “worst disasters ever,” wondering whether Katrina is really “our tsunami,” comparing the death toll that was to the death toll that might have been, etc. And there is certainly validity to all of these endeavors. Yet, at a human level, experiencing a personal tragedy reminds you that, to the people directly affected, it doesn’t matter whether 10 people or 10,000 people died; what matters is the one person you care about who is ripped away from you far too soon. The grieving 9/11 widow, the stricken Katrina husband, the father whose daughter is killed by a drunk driver, the son whose mother takes her own life — all of these people are, roughly speaking, equal in terms of their suffering. Whether your personal tragedy has a national dimension or not — whether or not it’s “newsworthy” — you still grieve.
Today and in the days to come, thousands of people across the United States will be grieving because of their own tragedies that occurred as part of yesterday’s mega-tragedy — their personal death toll of 1, amid the 250+ others who also died. And thousands more will be grieving totally unrelated tragedies — car crashes, heart attacks, suicides, senseless murders — that have nothing at all to do with the Great Tornado Outbreak, and their grief will be no less real. As we try to place yesterday’s catastrophe in historical context, we should also remember that.
UPDATE, 2:53 PM MDT: I added a new video to the top of the post, showing the live broadcast on the local CBS affiliate as the tornado moved through Tuscaloosa.