Urban Disasters They Didn’t Teach You In School

We think we’re safe in the city. There’s so many of us together, it’s assumed not much bad will happen. At the least it should happen to somebody else, hopefully not somebody you know. A shooting, a car crash, we move on. Few events screech our lives to a halt, demanding our collective attention for the sake of emergency.

We crave these kinds of happenings, though. Just the power going out has us racing to Facebook and Twitter, giddy to share this unexpected experience. True pandaemonium does occasionally occur. However, disasters like San Francisco in 1991, New York in 2001, or New Orleans in 2005 are so well documented that they remain etched into our collective memory. But is it enough?

Catastrophe from generations past linger, too. The Chicago fire, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the dust bowl years – all have found places in our public ed textbooks. Dig deeper than what you learned in school, though, and the mind boggles how we’ve survived this long. What follows are a handful of mostly man-made disasters that dwarf recent history in scale and ferocity.


Seattle, 1957 – Okay, as far as disasters go, this wasn’t actually that bad. Nobody died, but only barely. Usually just small enough to swallow a car or truck, the phenomenon of sinkholes has always fascinated me.  That the ground can simply opening up with little warning – swallowing people and property – is frankly terrifying. Larger episodes, however rare, are the stuff of nightmares. The recent sinkhole in Guatemala City took a 3-story building some 200 feet straight down into a perfectly round maw the diameter of an entire intersection. Such massive sinkholes we usually attribute to poorer nations without First World maintenance or proper seismic monitoring. Yet nature and physics so often make a mockery of this kind of cognitive dissonance (think Titanic). Such was the case in Seattle, 1957.


Near the crossing of Ravenna blvd. and 16th ave. on November 11th, 1957, a massive hole opened in the earth stretching 200 feet long and some sixty feet deep. A water main buried deep below ground thought to have been damaged in an earthquake a decade earlier had been slowly eating away at the dirt under the street until the avenue finally gave way. Most home owners assume pipes under their homes are safe and secure. Think again.

Shortly after evacuating the surrounding residents, another collapse worsened the situation. Somehow, nobody was killed or hurt. Homes along the street were left undamaged. More-so, houses seen above 50+ years ago look virtually the same today, as though nothing ever happened. This time, folks got lucky.


Baltimore, 1904It seems like most cities were consumed in massive blazes at one point or another. Detroit. Chicago. New York. Detroit again.  During the industrial revolution, buildings were packed shoulder to should amid rapid urbanization. Housing and industry often occupied the same block. This was an era when OSHA and common safety sense – let alone 911 emergency response – were still a long ways off.

Baltimore was no different. Industrialization had seen the city building layer upon flammable urban fabric layer. What started as a single structure fire at the John Hurst and Company building, a dry goods warehouse, rapidly spread throughout downtown residential and shopping centers, destroying some 1,500 buildings in the process. Firefighters tried creating a ‘fire wall’ by dynamiting surrounding structures, but this tactic proved unsuccessful. Despite burning for 30 hours, the inferno only took one life directly.


Even though battalions of firefighters from other cities descending upon the blaze, a lack of compatibility between equipment made it impossible for say, a hose pump from Washington D.C. to fit a hydrant in Baltimore. At the time, hundreds of different hose configurations existed throughout the United States. Pursuit of patents in this era made standardization difficult, as competition so often trumped cooperation. The Great Baltimore fire is considered the 3rd worst ‘conflagration‘ after the great San Francisco and Chicago fires.


Great Colonial Hurricane, 1635 – While Hurricane Sandy may have single-handedly turned the tide of American public opinion on global warming after it wasted the New England seaboard, there have been far more intense storms to hit the Atlantic coast. The worst of which happened almost 400 years ago. While the proto-coloniam English settlements could hardly be called urban by today’s standards, they were likely the most built structures on the coast at the time. Little information exists about the hurricane itself, known to historians as the GCH.

From Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford: “This year, the 26th of August, was such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, either English or Indians, ever saw […] many of the Indians climb[ed] into trees for their safetyIt caused the sea to swell to the southward of this place above 20 feet right up and down. It blew down many hundred-thousands of trees, turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle.

Bear in mind, this was one of the first times Anglo-colonialists had witnessed a storm of this kind in the ‘New World’. Using eyewitness accounts of the storm surges, the direction and speed of the eye, among other available meteorlogical data, Brian R. Jarvinen of the NOAA’s National Hurricane Center concluded, “This was probably the most intense hurricane in New England history.


Great Michigan Fires & The Peshtigo Inferno, 1871 – When we think of fires that consume entire cities, we usually think Chicago. That fire destroyed several square miles of the central city. What most don’t know is that same day – October 8th, 1871 – damn near the entire midwest was also ablaze. While in Chicago hundreds died and some 18,000 buildings were destroyed, fires raged in numerous towns and forest land throughout Wisconsin and Michigan.

A combination of irresponsible ‘slash’ logging, a summer-long drought, and gale force winds caused a perfect storm for urban and wild fires that week. An estimated 2,500 people in Wisconsin lost their lives to fires that consumed over 1.2 million acres. In the town of Peshtigo alone, so many people died that the dead had to be buried in mass graves, as there were not enough people left alive to accurately identify the corpses.


In Michigan, the cities of Port Huron, White Rock, Manistee, and Holland all suffered catastrophic damage. Some accounts claimed the mile-high wall of fire was so intense that it spawned a tornado that destroyed houses and threw rail cars from their tracks. In total, some 2.5 million acres of Michigan burned that week – roughly 3,900 square miles. For context, the massive, months long fires in California that were finally extinguished this month consumed a paltry 400 square miles of forest, the state’s 3rd worst wildfire on record. 140 years earlier in Michigan, the  fires were thought the result of comet fragments colliding with the earth. Historically, little evidence has been found to support this theory.


Texas City, Texas, 1947 – Things blow up all the time. Chemical factories, chemical trains, chemical pipelines. It’s a horrifying fact of life in our industrial, capital-driven lives. Despite safety regulations fought for by Labor, to this day deadly industrial explosions are still a routine occurrence.

As much of a hell-scape that towns like West and Lac-Megantic were turned into by explosions, none top those that ripped apart Texas City. Docked at the Port of Texas City, the French-registered SS Grandcamp caught fire the morning of April 16, 1947. Fire crews responded, as did onlookers along the shore, who witnessed the heat of the fire boil the sea around the vessel. As the fire spread, the captain ordered the hold to be ‘steamed’ in an effort to control the fire without damaging the cargo. Priorities first.

APR 24 1947, OCT 12 1954, NOV 13 1984, DEC 16 1984; Here is the second of a series of four famous diGetty Images

What many observing from shore didn’t realize was that Grandcamp’s cargo was 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, the same compound used in the terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Shortly after 9am, the ship exploded, destroying over a thousand buildings along the shore, including the Monsanto Chemical Company plant, which in turn started even more fires. The blast created a 15 foot wave that further damaged the port. Debris from the Grandcamp was found miles away.

The initial explosion vaporized hundreds of people, leaving hundreds more dead but barely identifiable. A nearby docked ship, the High Flyer (also carrying ammonium nitrate) caught fire. With all but one of the town’s volunteer firefighters now dead, the blaze aboard continued for 15 hours, until she, too, exploded, killing several more people. All told, the Texas City disaster is considered one of the largest non-nuclear detonations in U.S. history.


Philadelphia, 1985 – This final entry is a disaster more sinister than those listed previously, yet reveals a side of mankind as heartlessly destructive as our logging and chemical manufacturing endeavors. Like the deadly firebombing of Branch Dividians by federal agents in 1993, the bombing of the MOVE home by the Philadelphia police department was an indiscriminate act of lethal force. The 1985 raid on the house in a neighborhood of black families ended up burning an entire city block to the ground.

What had been a years long on-and-off skirmish between the black liberation and animal rights activists of MOVE and local police – the shooting of officer James J. Ramp during a prior raid of MOVE’s headquarters caused police aggression to reach an all time high. On May 13, 1985, police attempted to again raid the group’s new home at 6221 Osage Ave. The result was a standoff that involved tear gas and an exchange of gunfire between police and residents. Unbelievably, police then chose to drop two incendiary bombs from a helicopter onto the roof of the house.


The resulting explosions and fire caused people to attempt to flee for their lives, only to encounter more police gunfire that forced them back inside the burning house. Fire fighters at the scene were ordered to not put out the flames for over an hour – until it was far too late, even as the fire spread to 65 adjacent houses, destroying them all. In total, the firebombing killed 11 people, including 5 children.


Explained MOVE founder John Africa, “[The police] didn’t come out there because of our lifestyle, they didn’t come out there because of some complaints from neighbors. Since when has this government ever gave a damn about black people complaining about their neighbors? They came out there to kill, not to arrest.

It wasn’t until 1996 that a federal court ordered the City of Philadelphia to pay out $1.5 million dollars to the survivors of this deadly police action.


With the exception of the Colonial Hurricane, these disasters were avoidable. For me, they serve as reminder of the inevitable follies that occur when greed, arrogance, and hatred overcome natural inclinations to care for one another and our environment. There has been meager progress in preventing similar tragedies, but it’s hard to flip on the news and not find examples of how we fail ourselves and communities over and over. Surely human error is inevitable, but our drive for profit and domination accelerates this trend. By forgetting stories of where we’ve failed before, we doom our future selves to the same fate. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.