[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: Welcome, InstaPundit readers! Here is my earlier post on the tornadoes, featuring lots of stunning and terrifying videos, as well as some criticism of the MSM.

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.

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Comments on "Tornado calamity among the deadliest U.S. disasters of the last 60 years"

18 Responses to “Tornado calamity among the deadliest U.S. disasters of the last 60 years”

  1. Runcible Says:

    You’ve got #1 listed as “September 11, 2011 attacks – 2,973”. Let’s hope that doesn’t actually happen again.

  2. Brendan Loy Says:

    Oops! Quite right. Thanks for the heads up. Fixed it.

  3. Justme Says:

    “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”

    Quite right. And when it happens to you, all kinds of people give private condolences and mention their own loss. You suddenly realize how many people are walking around with horrible emotional scars that you never knew about.

  4. AD Says:

    “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic!”

  5. Alasdair Says:

    I wonder what it is about April Tornado outbreaks that makes them so deadly – all three that made your list are in April …

  6. Brendan Loy Says:

    Small sample size. Coincidence. That’d be my guess.

  7. AMLTrojan Says:

    The meteorological conditions that are conducive to widespread numbers of deadly tornadoes are most prevalent in the spring. It appears La Nina is also a major factor.

  8. Brendan Loy Says:

    Per NOAA, “The peak period for tornadoes in the southern plains…is during May into early June. On the Gulf coast, it is earlier during the spring; in the northern plains and upper Midwest, it is June or July.” If there’s a meteorological reason why April, as opposed to, say, May or June, is more likely to produce mega-events like this one, I’m not aware of it – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I don’t know tornadoes nearly as well as I know hurricanes.

  9. Keri Says:

    It’s too true about the personal vs public and irrelevance to impact for so many. There was a shooting at my old high school while my brother was a senior in March of 2001, and even though he wasn’t physically hurt it was much more traumatic to me personally and to my family that Sept 11 was. Lots of understanding of the grander scale and greater national and global impact, but personally my brother seeing a kid come out of the bathroom right in front of him shooting was way worse. “Only” two kids died that day, but he all too easily could have made three. Both are things I heard about/watched on tv first and wasn’t there for, but the shooting came first and hit me a lot harder.

    I think the other side of it is that when it comes to lasting impact of the tragedies, Sept 11, 2001 affects me more now than March 5, 2001 does. Also, the political comments after Sept 11 don’t bother me at a gut level so much as political comments about the school shooting did/do. We were sophomores in college & within a day or two I got a college republican email meant to tug at my heartstrings because the dude who wrote it went to our rival high school, and I might have agreed with the political bit about our 2nd Amendment rights but I resented him taking advantage of the situation. I knew he of course meant no insensitivity but was still pissed. Was just as pissed listening to a self-righteous sermon encouraging gun control after the VA Tech shooting, and I know that’s my personal history. The effects of Sept 11 as a commentary are much more a part of common conversation though.

  10. Joseph Somsel Says:

    Hey! Where’s that nuclear accident at Three Mile Island back in ’79?

    Oh yea, nobody died in that one – but you’d never know it from the relative press coverage.

  11. mike Says:

    I lost two friends yesterday, in their home in Tennessee.
    They were together in death as in life.
    I will not hear Brenda’s laugh again, nor see Marty’s smile and twinkle in his eye.
    Heart aches, breaks.
    I believe in Heaven. Couldn’t take the suffering on Earth without it.

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  13. David K. Says:

    As you point out the loss of life matters most to those who are impacted by it personally, and certainly that is true here. But what really strikes me when I read this post, and look at these numbers is that these trageides involve deaths numbered in a couple thousand at most. Then I think about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and realize that the death toll there is an order of magnitude higher. It really gives you a sense of scale to all of it. I pray for those affected by both disasters.

  14. Brendan Loy Says:

    Yeah. 14,416 dead and 11,889 missing in that one, per Wikipedia. That toll is two orders of magnitude greater than this, really. And then you compare that to the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 230,000+, and that’s another order of magnitude worse. And then you look at the list of the “deadliest natural disasters of all time, topped by two floods in China that killed between 1 and 2 million people. That’s another order of magnitude. And then, if you’re not depressed enough, you can go to the list of wars and genocides, where the tolls dwarf even those numbers.

    We’re remarkably sheltered, as residents of a first-world country in the modern era, from those sorts of mega-tragedies. And remarkably blessed. As disasters go, 300 dead barely moves the needle in much of the third world, nor would it have moved the needle anywhere throughout much of human history. Not that any of that is any comfort, nor should it be, for the reasons we’ve both pointed out, to anyone in Alabama or the affected regions right now — nor, above all, to someone like commenter Mike @ #11, who was personally affected. R.I.P., Brenda and Marty. :(

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  17. Shanna Smiley Says:

    I’m amazed at how calm the weatherman is in that video. Calm and kind of chipper.

    I’m thinking about Arkansas with the tornado in Vilonia last week (which was very serious, although not nearly as deadly thank god), our local folks were pretty much constantly telling everyone to go to a safe place and emphasizing the urgency of it. And they generally remind you what a safe place means (storm shelter/basement/interior room). Maybe that all happened before and after this particular shot?

  18. List Natural Disasters America Says:

    […] Tornado calamity among the deadliest U.S. disasters of the last 60 … American Airlines Flight 586 crash, 2001 – Great Tornado Outbreak of April 27, 2011 – Rapid City Flood of 1972 – TWA Flight 800 crash, 1996 – 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. on Mar 06, 2011 Filed in […]

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