• 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: Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society, G.J. Symons (editor) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    89 VOTES

    The Eruption Of Krakatoa In 1883 Caused 'Two Years Of Red Sunsets All Over The World'

    Located on the island of the same name, Krakatoa is considered one of the world's most deadly volcanoes. When Krakatoa erupted in August 1883, it caused the demise of more than 36,000 people, shook parts of the island into the sea, and led to increased temperatures around the world. 

    The eruption of Krakatoa was so loud that it was heard as far away as Australia, while ash spewed into the sky, causing "two years of red sunsets all over the world." One survivor of the eruption described seeing "dense black smoke and the glare of fiery light" in the hours leading up to larger blasts from the volcano. He took to high ground to avoid falling lava and two volcanic waves that hit the shores of the island:

    [People] whom I passed on the way were overtaken by the second wave, or rushing torrent, and at once found a watery grave. Breathless with running, I came as fast as possible up the densely wooded slopes... the great wave, sweeping all before it, was close at my heels.... 

    Later, when "the worst was over as regards [to] the volcanic wave, many sank down and died on the road from exhaustion and neglect," the survivor added. He also explained how Europeans were shunned by indigenous residents of the island who believed their presence was the cause of the eruption and its aftermath.

    Humanizing account?
  • Photo: David Rydevik / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    145 VOTES

    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: Griffith & Griffith / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    144 VOTES

    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?
  • 4
    61 VOTES

    After The Coringa Cyclone Of 1839, It Looked Like 'Gigantic Demons' Had Thrown Ships Inland

    Located in southeastern India, Coringa is a village on the Godavari River. Subjected to regular storms in the Indian Ocean basin, Coringa had been destroyed only a few decades earlier when, in 1789, a written account documents that a high tide, together with a northwestern wind "blowing with fury" brought about "three monstrous waves." Roughly 20,000 individuals disappeared instantly.

    In 1839, the destruction was worse. According to a visitor to Coringa:

    The number of vessels of from 100 to 200 tons that were high and dry miles inland, some bottoms up, gave the country the appearance of having been visited by a party of gigantic demons, who had been throwing the huge hulls at one another.

    It's estimated 20,000 vessels were destroyed in the storm, with as many as 300,000 human casualties.

    Humanizing account?