America's 7 Worst Disasters

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Landmark American Disasters

Atlantic City, NJ in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Photo Credit: Mario Tama/ Getty Images

These events shook an entire nation, left miles of debris, and will always be remembered by those closest to the catastrophe. Starting from the earliest to the most recent, these are some of the most destructive moments in America.

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New York's Great Fire of 1835

The view from Exchange Place of 'The Great Fire of 1835' by Nicolino Calyo, 1837. Photo Credit: Kean Collection/Getty Images

When a nightly patrolman noticed smoke billowing from one of the hundreds of warehouses in downtown New York, the inevitable fire spread quickly through mazes of buildings. The situation was made worse because it occurred on a bitterly cold December night, so cold that the fire hydrants froze solid. The fire raged through the early morning and firemen resorted to blowing up buildings along Wall Street in order to create a barrier of rubble.

In the aftermath, 674 buildings were destroyed and the total cost was estimated to be about $20 million. (In the 1800s, that sum of money was considered enormous.) The one silver lining is only two people lost their lives, since the fire occurred in a neighborhood that was not residential at the time.

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The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Lithograph (by Currier & Ives) of the city during the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, 1871. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Legend has it that Ms. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern that set the entire city on fire, but there are so many more reasonable factors that contributed to this disaster. Fire crews in the area were disorganized that particular night and Chicago was in the middle of long summer drought. The city's buildings, which were lax about fire codes, were also built mostly of wood. With or without an aggressive cow and poorly placed lantern, Chicago was ripe for a fire.

The fire lasted over 24 hours, leveled 4 square miles of the city, and the cost of damage was about $190 million.  While 300 people were killed in the disaster, less than half of those bodies were recovered.

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San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

Home collapse in San Francisco after the quake. Photo Credit: InterNetwork Media/ Photodisc/ Getty Images

On April 18, 1906 a warning shock spread through San Francisco. The initial small rumble was soon followed by a much stronger and more destructive quake that lasted for nearly a minute. Buildings collapsed, gas lines broke, and fires erupted immediately. Because the water mains were destroyed as well, the fires became that much more difficult to control.

More than half of San Francisco's homes were destroyed and anywhere from 700 to 3,000 people were killed.

The earthquake was the first of its kind to be documented with photography, which had just recently become accessible.

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The 1930s Dust Bowl

A photographic postcard shows a dust storm approaching a house, produced in 1935 in Fort Scott, Kansas. Photo Credit: Transcendental Graphics/ Getty Images

The Depression Era in America was made even worst when a decade-long drought hit The Great Plains. When the temperatures remained abnormally high and the winter winds became stronger, dirt clouds that were miles wide swept the land. These so-called "black blizzards" became more and more frequent throughout the decade. The wide spread soil erosion ruined crops and forced residents out from their once fertile, profitable land.

Those who tried sticking out the dust bowl developed severe coughing fits and delirious fevers known as dust pneumonia. Some even died as a direct result getting caught in a "black blizzard" and suffocating. 

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Hurricane Katrina

Chair in tree after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Photo Credit: Kevin Horan/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

Louisiana was under a state of emergency since Friday August 26, 2005, when the storm track was clearly gaining momentum toward the Gulf Coast.

By Sunday, the severely high tide put the New Orleans' levees were under visible strain and a mandatory evacuation was ordered. That evening, The National Weather Service issued a special warning which foretold the looming destructing: 

“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. … At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure. All gabled roofs will fail, leaving those homes severely damaged or destroyed. … Power outages will last for weeks. … Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.” [National Weather Service]

The rescue efforts became a controversial political issue when the government was criticized for not deploying resources in time or to the hardest hit areas. With $100 billion in damage and nearly 2,000 people killed, the aftermath of Katrina still lingers in the streets and hearts of area's residents. 

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2011 Tornado Outbreak

The damage in Birmingham, Alabama after an EF5 Tornado hit in April 2011. Photo Credit: Niccolo Ubalducci/ Moment/ Getty Images

During April 2011, 288 confirmed tornadoes formed with the unofficial count reaching over 800.

Though the exact path of any tornado is hard to predict, weather conditions in the Southern and Midwest United States featured clear signs of a brewing outbreak. Thunderstorms in the area had persistent updrafts, which formed the supercell clouds that create tornadoes. 

When the outbreak finally subsided, there was $10 billion in damages and 350 people were confirmed dead.

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Hurricane Sandy

Waves break in front of a destroyed amusement park wrecked by Hurricane Sandy in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Photo Credit: Mario Tama/ Getty Images

Though Sandy technically wasn't a hurricane, it was the largest tropical system to ever form in the Atlantic Ocean and America's second most destructive storm after Hurricane Katrina.

Right around Halloween in 2012, Sandy hit land during the full moon's high tide. The storm affected 600-miles of the east coast and hit the hardest along the Jersey shore. Atlantic City was underwater and the iconic boardwalk was pummeled into debris.

Many parts of New York City went dark as flooding and power outages reached the most densely populated area of America.

The superstorm contributed to deaths of over100 people and $50 billion dollars in damage.