Worst Disasters in Texas History

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Many many wonder – Does Texas have natural disasters?  From hurricanes and floods to wildfires and tornadoes, Texas has seen it all when it comes to catastrophic events. The state’s diverse geography and climate play a huge role in this variety of disasters. Texas stretches from the humid Gulf Coast to the dry plains in the west, making it a prime spot for all sorts of extreme weather.

Coastal areas are often in the path of powerful hurricanes, while central and western regions face tornadoes and wildfires. And let’s not forget the industrial centers like Houston, which have their own unique risks.

Let’s take a look at some of the worst man made and natural disasters in Texas history:

Great Galveston Hurricane (1900)

Floating wreckage near Texas City caused by Galveston hurricane, 1900

The infamous great hurricane that struck Galveston shores on September 8, 1900 remains the worst and deadliest hurricane in Texas and in the history of the United States. This category four hurricane left around 6,000 to 12,000 people dead (the number most cited in official reports is 8,000). To put this death toll to perspective, this Great Galveston Hurricane killed more people than the total of all those who died in every tropical cyclone to make landfall in the United States since.

The hurricane sustained winds of 145 mph and caused $700 million (in 2017 USD) in damages, making it the second costliest hurricane in the US ever. Weather forecasters issued a warning for residents and tourists to move to a higher ground, but the warnings were ignored. A 15-foot surge flooded the city and destroyed many homes and buildings in the process. The most advanced city in Texas was nearly destroyed by one of the largest natural disasters in Texas.

Texas City Disaster (1947)

SS Wilson B. Keene, destroyed in the Texas City disaster's second explosion

The Texas City Disaster in 1947 was an industrial accident that occurred on the Port of Texas City at Galveston Bay. On April 16, 1947, SS Grandcamp exploded while it’s moored in Texas City, and the cargo included ammonium nitrate, fertilizers and a highly explosive substance. The explosion set off a chain of fires, completely destroying the entire ship, dock area, and a thousand nearby homes and buildings. It also caused a 15-foot tidal wave. This incident killed 26 firemen and destroyed all their firefighting equipment. Around 400 to 600 people were killed, with as many as 4,000 people injured.

Unfortunately, another ship nearby was also carrying ammonium nitrate – SS High Flyer. The ship caught fire during the first explosion, but it was towed away from the mainland before it exploded after 16 hours.

Waco Tornado (1953)

The ALICO building, the tallest structure in Waco, looms over the destroyed downtown area

Texas has seen its share of great tornadoes, but none as deadly as the Waco Tornado that struck Waco on Mother’s Day of 1953. The twister touched down in the town of Lorena and moved northeast toward Waco. As it moved, it grew to nearly a third of a mile wide and was classified as an F5 tornado. This violent tornado killed 114 people, injured 597, and left a 23-mile swatch of destruction that destroyed 600 homes and damaged 1000. Search and rescue has become difficult as some people had to wait up to 14 hours to be rescued.

The impact of the tornado prompted the Texas Tornado Warning Conference in June of the same year, where officials discussed and improved tornado warning systems to prevent future death tolls like that of what the Waco tornado left. This twister was one of the deadly series of at least 33 tornadoes that hit at least ten different states in the US on May 9-11, 1953, and this one was the deadliest.

Yellow Fever Epidemic (1867)

Thousands of lives were lost during the 1867 yellow fever epidemic, which was one of the most devastating events in the history of the Lone Star State. No definite list of casualties was compiled, but entire towns were wiped out due to the disease. This epidemic is believed to be second to the 1900 Galveston hurricane in number of deaths.

The outbreak originated in Indianola in June, and the virus spread by way of infected persons to Galveston and then across East-Central Texas. The spread of the virus didn’t stop until November, during the first frost of the year. By then, 4,000 Texans has already died, including 393 US soldiers across the state.

Central Texas Flood (1921)

Surface weather analysis of the second hurricane of the 1921 Atlantic hurricane season on September 7, 1921

In September of 1921, rain fell throughout Central Texas and was received as a relief because it broke more than two-month-long droughts. However, within a 24-hour period, some parts of Texas experienced a record-breaking 38 inches of rainfall. It also caused floods in much of Austin and San Antonio, resulting in the deaths of 224 individuals. Houses and entire families were washed away, and damage to local infrastructure was extensive and irreparable. Fourteen of the 27 bridges over the San Antonio River were destroyed, and many buildings in the heart of the city had to be demolished.

The hardest hit area was Williamson County, north of Austin, where twice as many lives were lost as in San Antonio. According to records, it was the worst flood in Texas history. The flood waters measured around 8,000 acre-feet. This disaster caused a 10-year overhaul of flood control measures and river improvements in San Antonio to help better thwart future natural disasters in Texas.

New London School Explosion (1937)

In March of 1987, an unfortunate school accident led to the death of more than 295 students and teachers and resulted in a building collapse. A natural gas leak caused a deadly explosion in the basement of New London School in Rusk County.

The accident happened because a manual training instructor turned on a sanding machine in an area filled with natural gas. It caused an ignition in the air and the flame moved under the building before exploding. This caused the building to collapse from the ground up.

Galveston Hurricane (1915)

1915 hurricane damage in Houston

Fifteen years after a monstrous hurricane that wrecked Galveston, another devastating hurricane decided to strike the city. In August 1915, Galveston is hit again by a tropical cyclone that caused extensive damages in the port city. It made landfall in the area as a Category Storm, leaving five to six feet of water in many businesses. The devastation would have been even worse than the 1900 hurricane, but the newly completed Galveston Seawall mitigated the disaster.

Still, the storm caused $109.8 billion (in 2018 USD) in the United States and killed more than 400 people. It was the fourth most catastrophic hurricane in US history in terms of damage costs.

Delta Airlines Flight 191 Crash (1985)

The remains of the tail section of N726DA, operating as Delta Air Lines Flight 191, which crashed in Dallas, Texas, in 1985

On August 2, 1985, Delta Airlines Flight 191 crashed on approach at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. It was a rainy Friday, and the jumbo jet encountered a microburst – a downdraft that’s very hazardous for aircraft – sending the plane careening along the ground north of runway 17L. The plane struck a car on Texas Highway 114, killing its driver, then exploded into a fireball as it slammed into large water tanks.

This unfortunate plane crash killed 136 passengers and crew on board, plus the driver of the car on the highway. Twenty-seven people survived this crash. According to the investigation, although the pilot was competent and experienced, he lacked training in how to deal with microbursts. After the crash, pilots were required to train more extensively in handling and reacting to microbursts and how to take quick, evasive actions.

Hurricane Ike (2008)

Damage from Ike in Gilchrist, Texas, which was largely destroyed by the hurricane

Hurricane Ike, a Category 4 hurricane, struck the Texas Gulf Coast on September 13, 2008. It caused widespread destruction, particularly in Galveston and the Houston metropolitan area. Ike’s powerful winds and storm surge led to significant flooding, extensive property damage, and power outages affecting millions of residents.

The hurricane resulted in 195 deaths and approximately $30 billion in damages. Ike’s impact was so severe that it led to numerous changes in building codes and disaster preparedness plans across Texas.  This quickly became one of the worst natural disasters in history. 

Bastrop County Complex Fire (2011)

A home destroyed by Bastrop County complex fire

The Bastrop County Complex Fire, the most destructive wildfire in Texas history, ignited on September 4, 2011. Over 34,000 acres were burned, and nearly 1,700 homes were destroyed. The fire, driven by high winds and drought conditions, caused two fatalities and significant environmental damage, including the loss of the endangered Houston toad’s habitat.

The fire’s aftermath prompted significant changes in wildfire management and community preparedness efforts, highlighting the importance of fire-resistant building practices and emergency evacuation plans.

Hurricane Harvey (2017)

Flooding in Port Arthur, Texas, due to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, made landfall on the Texas coast on August 25, 2017. It is one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, causing unprecedented flooding in the Houston area and other parts of southeastern Texas. Harvey dumped more than 60 inches of rain in some areas, leading to widespread catastrophic flooding, displacing over 30,000 people, and causing 107 confirmed deaths. The economic impact exceeded $125 billion.

The response to Harvey highlighted the need for improved flood infrastructure, better urban planning, and more robust emergency response strategies.

Conclusion

Understanding the worst disasters in Texas history helps us appreciate the resilience and strength of its communities. Each event has taught valuable lessons in preparedness and response from hurricanes and floods to wildfires and tornadoes. By learning from the past, we can better protect and support our communities in the face of future challenges.

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