Tsunami 2004: Worst 'Natural Disaster' Ever?

I highly reccomend ‘The Pessimist’s Guide to History,’ a great book about major catastrophes of all kinds in all of history- just for fun, mostly. Looking over the numbers in the book, I have a question: was the tsunami last year, based on it’s nearly 300,000 deaths, the worst natural disaster in recorded history? But I have to define what I mean.
By ‘worst,’ obviously you have to take into account the fact that global populations are exponentially bigger now than even 50 years ago, so a higher number who die in a disaster doesn’t mean more devestating, necc. I know that sounds horrible, but it’s true.
And by ‘natural disaster,’ I mean natural occurences with exception to plagues and famines and other diseases, which, even if caused by natural things, kill people over a longer period- I’m talking about a natural event that happens once, and we only include the number killed from that event, not from famine or disease or predation later on. So pretty much, the deaths on impact of an earthquake, twisters, tsunami, hurricane, cyclone, or other.
So I look through the book, and the only disasters that could rival the tsunami, given my definition, are the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, China, that killed 240-750,000 (that’s quite a discrepancy), the set of cyclones that killed 300,000 and another 300,000 in Calcutta in 1737, and the 1556 Shanxi earthquake that may have buried 830,000 Chinese in the silt caves in which they lived. And then there was the Yangtze River flood in 1931 that killed 3.7 million Chinese, which I’ll get to in a second.
Now I read somewhere- and I believe it, easily- that the 1737 Calcutta incident may not be anywhere near that catastrophic- it could be only a few thousand! And as for 1556- well, that was 1556, and I doubt anyone did a survey of the silt cave neighbourhood before and after the event. As for 1931, the Pessimist book seems to imply that thousands drowned in the flood, but the millions starved and drank ruined water and had ruined crops, and thus died.
I guess my point is to say that, in all the news that we all saw on the tsunami, I never heard anyone say that it killed the highest proven number for any single natural disasterous event in history- but then again, only if you exclude the plagues and famines and diseases as I have will you reach this conclusion.

Well, it may be the most filmed natural disaster in history…

It may also constitute the largest number of deaths over such a widespread area. I’d be hard pressed to think of any disaster that killed so many people on TWO different continents and one sub-continent.

There is a terrible slowness about some of those video clips - just this wave in the distance, seeming to take forever to get any closer, and then suddenly, its there in all its fury and power!!! Very sad…


Here’s a link to a thread I started earlier on this:

Tsunami in Indonesia: Where does it rank in history?

Well, there’s this story told by a fella named Noah…

I wonder what the death toll from the Krakatoa tsunami would have been if it happened in modern times. Even back then, the death toll was something like 35,000. And that’s not counting the people that starved the next year when the ash in the atmosphere extended winter to an unreasonable degree in the northern latitudes.

If you include prehistory, how about the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, assuming that that actually happened?

Out of curiosity, where are you getting the figure of 300,000? Everything I’ve seen has been in the range of 150,000. Just wondering.

Found this site. Can’t vouch for it’s validity, but amongst some of the highest body counts:
*2003 Earthquake in Bam, Iran - 26,300 dead.

  • Gujarat, India, 2001: earthquake (20,000 dead)
  • Venezuela, 1999: Floods (20,000 dead)
  • West Africa, 1996: meningitis outbreak (25,000 dead)
  • North Korea, 1995-98: Famine and floods (3.5 million dead)
  • Gilan and Zanjan, Iran, 1990: 7.7 earthquake (35,000 dead)
  • Vietnam, 1971: Red River flood (100,000 dead)
  • Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, 1948: earthquake (100,000 dead)
  • Gansu, China, 1932: 7.6 earthquake (70,000 dead)
  • Messina, Italy, 1908: 7.5 earthquake (70,000 dead)
  • Huayan Kou, China, 1887: Yang-tse Kiang flooding (possibly one million dead)
  • Shensi, China, 1556: earthquake (800,000 dead)

The number I’ve heard most recently is about 287,000. From this AFP at Yahoo:

If one is to include famines as “natural disasters”…

Soviet Union 1921 - 5.1 million dead
Soviet Union 1932-1933 - 7 million dead
Those numbers were increased by “help” of the government.

China “The Great Leap Forward” 1957-1960 - 20 million dead
Once again government policy pretty much caused a great deal of the death toll.

Whoops, sorry didn’t see that you excluded famines and plagues… never mind.

Thanks for the link to the earlier posting- I don’t know how I missed the 1970 Bangladesh tragedy!
Nov. 13, 1970 — A cyclone in the Ganges Delta of Bangladesh kills at least 300,000 people.

Those 300,000 died in just the flood that night. That has to be the worst ever according to my definition.

I suppose we’re just counting HUMAN deaths? Otherwise we get to add any of a half-dozen or so major extinctions, including the one that wiped out all of the dinosaurs.

Yeah, just humans- although ELEs rock! Forget the dinosaurs, though- they’re overrated. I would bring back the giant sloths.

The 1887 flood in China that Ninjachick listed is similar to the 1931 flood- I don’t know how many died from the flood and how many starved or such. But I found a couple more I’d missed.
There was a flood in Holland in 1530 that broke their dikes, which protected the low-lying towns from the sea, and killed 400,000! This is a country ‘where two-fifths of the land is below sea level, and most of the rest of it is only three hundred feet above…’ This must take the cake!
There was a similar event in 1642 in China, when rebels fighting the Ming Dynasty purposely broke the river dikes in the city of Kaifeng, killing 300,000. Even though this is a flood, it was man-made, so I don’t know if it counts according to my definition…
So I have my answer- the tsunami’s effect as a natural disaster in most-likely-accurate numbers killed on impact is probably 4th or 6th place-

Flood in Holland, 1530
Cyclone in Bengal, 1970
(Man-caused Flood in China, 1642)
Tsunami in Indonesia and India, 2004
Earthquake in Tangshan China (probably ranks much higher), 1976
Earthquake in Shanxi, China, 1556 (could actually be number one)
Cyclone/earthquake part one
Cyclone/earthquake part two in Calcutta, 1737 (who knows?)
Flood in China, 1931 (could be much higher)
Flood in China, 1887 (could be much higher)