• Weird History

Firsthand Accounts Of History's Biggest And Most Significant Natural Disasters

List RulesVote up the most humanizing accounts from history's biggest natural disasters.

Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires occur each year, bringing physical destruction to land while simultaneously devastating people, animals, and plants. Natural disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes, and cyclones similarly result in widespread devastation, often changing entire landscapes and coastlines. 

Survivors of better-known natural disasters like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake have written down what it was like to live through those events. The same is true for individuals who watched as lesser-known floods and storms unleashed nature's fury all around them. Some of the accounts from history's biggest natural disasters remind us of the pure power of the planet, while others are a testament to human strength and endurance. Many accounts attest to the pain and anxiety associated with uncontrollable hardships brought on by natural disasters, too.

Through it all, firsthand accounts offer insight into the ongoing - and unrelenting - struggle between humans and nature. 

  • Photo: David Rydevik / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Boxing Day Tsunami Of 2004 Tore Children Out Of Their Mothers' Arms

    Triggered by a massive 9.1 magnitute earthquake, the tsunami that rose in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 wrought upheaval throughout the region. As a giant wall of water befell islands and coastlines, winds that topped 500 mph slammed India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and a host of other countries. 

    Because the tsunami hit areas far outside the earthquake zone, residents and tourists had no warning. Nearly 230,000 people perished as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, something eyewitness Ruwanthi Senarathne described taking place in Sri Lanka:

    We saw the wave strike just 100 metres away from us. We were lucky to escape, but before long, mothers came crying... they had lost their small children in front of their very eyes and seen them floating to the sea. They were unable to hold them since they hadn't been able to grab them under the water.

    Humanizing account?
  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    When The Yangtze River Flooded In 1931, A 'Wall Of Water' Destroyed Everything In Its Path

    The Yangtze River runs for more than 3,900 miles through China. As the longest river in Asia, the Yangtze has flooded thousands of times through history as it extends from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea. The floods in 1931, however, were the most deadly, killing 3.7 million people across the Chinese landscape.

    During the spring and summer of 1931, China experienced high levels of rain, with waters rising through July and August. In rural areas, fields flooded and rice crops failed. This resulted in widespread starvation, especially in urban centers like Wuhan and Nanjing. The rising Yangtze also brought polluted waters and subsequent disease to populations around the country. 

    After the dyke around Wuhan broke in July 1931, the city was deluged with water. One survivor, Jin Shilong, recalled, "There was no warning... only the sudden great wall of water. Most of Wuhan's buildings in those days were only one story high, and for most people there was no escape - they died by the tens of thousands... when I heard the terrible noise and saw the wall of water coming, I raced to the top story of the [three-story] building nearby."

    Shilong spent 70 days stranded in that building. 

    Humanizing account?
  • Photo: Griffith & Griffith / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When A Hurricane Hit Galveston, TX In 1900, 'The Rain Was Like Knives'  

    Mary Mees was 14 years old when a massive hurricane struck the coast of Texas on September 8, 1900. In Galveston, at least a sixth of the population was killed when the storm - with 135-mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge - hit. Mary described her experience:

    First one door came open, and we, Papa and I, both tried to close it, but could not do it. Now another door came open, so we had another hard time. We had so much to do that we did not notice the water come... We dressed and intended to go to the stable which was not far from the house... During that time every window pane blew out... We could hardly walk. The rain was like knives in our faces.  

    After several hours in their stable, Mary and her family noticed a shift in the wind before the roof blew off and the walls came down around them. Mary wrote that she initially sank into the water. Afterward:

    That is where we parted. I came up, caught on to a tree, and Nick was there. I tried to talk to him but couldn't. Boards floated under my feet, but at last no more came. My hands gave out. I dropped into the water, came up, and caught the same tree... 

    It was not long before I went down head first. I thought I was done for sure, but came up three times, and was ready to go down the third time when I thought I touched something and grabbed it. It was the roof of the stable, which I got on and floated. After passing several trees, which I wanted to catch but could not, I finally caught one and put my arms around it. It had a limb which I was standing on. I looked around but could not see anybody. It was raining as hard as it could.

    She continued:

    A long time passed, and I saw a big old tree coming and Papa was on it. How happy I felt. I looked around but did not see Maggie and Grandpa. Time passed slowly, and the water fell about four feet. Then we saw no house; no nothing. Everything was gone.

    Humanizing account?
  • Photo: Logan Abassi/UNDP Global / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.0

    During Haiti's 2010 Earthquake, Buildings Came 'Pancaking Down'

    Bob Poff, a disaster coordinator with the Salvation Army, recalled what he witnessed as the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 12, 2010:

    When the earthquake struck, I was driving down the mountain from Petionville [a suburb of Port-au-Prince, the capital]. Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out of the windows to see buildings pancaking down, like I have never witnessed.

    Traffic came to a standstill, while thousands of people poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bodies, looking for anyone who could help them. We piled bodies into the back of our truck, and took them down the hill with us, hoping to find medical attention. All of them were older, scared, bleeding and terrified. It took about two hours to go less than one mile.

    Estimates for the number of people who perished in the earthquake vary significantly, with numbers ranging from 40,000 to more than 300,000. 

    Humanizing account?