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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Texas’ 10 Worst Disasters

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Long-ago Texas disasters are old news, but history offers lessons to those who take time to seek them.

A look at the most dire
disasters in the state’s history – a list that contains one disaster that happened long before Texas was settled – shows that the worst disasters are the ones that come without warning.

Today, of course, we know of a hurricane’s approach for days in advance. Tornados form faster, but even with those types of storms, weather forecasters and law enforcement usually are able to warn citizens to take shelter. Consequently, the number of weather-related fatalities has declined over the years. But early-day Texans were not as fortunate.

With the catastrophic Haitian earthquake very much in the news, it seems like a good time to list Texas’ most devastating events, from storms to epidemics to plane crashes. Here, in order of severity in terms of loss of life, are the 10 worst disasters in Texas history:

1. September 8, 1900
An unnamed hurricane sweeps across Galveston. Fatality estimates range from 8,000 to 12,000. This still stands as the worst disaster in U.S. history in terms of lives lost.
The Seawall monument
statue in memory of the Galveston 1900 storm
The Seawall Monument in Galveston
Photos courtesy Lou Ann Herda
Statue in memory of the victims of the 1900 storm 
2. Summer 1867
Yellow fever outbreak kills thousands in Texas. No definite list of casualties has ever been compiled, but the epidemic ranks second only to the 1900 Galveston hurricane in number of deaths.

3. October-November 1918
“Spanish flu” pandemic kills an estimated 20 million world-wide, a half-million in the United States and several thousand in Texas. El Paso, where the disease broke out first among soldiers at Fort Bliss, had 600 deaths.

4. April 16, 1947
Explosion of SS Grandcamp at the dock in Texas City, followed the next day by the explosion of the SS High Flyer, kill at least 576 persons. Thousands are injured in Texas’ second-worst non-disease disaster.
Scene of Now London School Explosion, March 18, 1937
Scene of London School Explosion
Photo courtesy texasoldphotos.com

5. March 18, 1937
Leaking natural gas explodes in basement of New London School in Rusk County. Of 600-plus students and teachers in the school that day, 319 died in the explosion and resulting building collapse. Incident still stands as the nation’s worst school disaster.

6. September 14, 1919
A hurricane strikes south of Corpus Christi with 110 mph winds pushing a storm surge of 16 feet. The unnamed storm takes 284 lives.

7. August 16-19, 1915
Galveston is again hit by a powerful hurricane. Storm kills 275 and results in more than $56 million in property damage. Devastation would have been even worse but for the seawall built to safeguard the city following the 1900 hurricane.

8. September 8-10, 1921
Triggered by a hurricane that came ashore in Mexico, worst rainstorm in Texas history results in the drowning of at least 215 people in Central Texas.

9. April 29, 1554
In Texas’ first historical disaster, three Spanish ships laden with silver, gold and trade goods – the San Esteban, the Espiritu Santo and the Santa Maria de Yciar – are washed ashore on South Padre Island by a spring storm in the Gulf of Mexico. As many as 200 passengers and crew members drown.

10. August 2, 1985
Delta Airlines Flight 191 crashes on approach at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, killing 135 passengers and crew and the driver of a car on State Highway 114. The crash ranks thirteenth among the nation’s worst aviation disasters.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
January 14 , 2010 column
Email: mikecoxtex@austin.rr.com

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