8/25/07

A Day of Fire

I find the history of various natural disasters fascinating. Don't ask me why. Perhaps I find the rarity of these events interesting, or maybe it's the variety human reaction during times of intense terror. We saw this with 9/11--tales of heroism, mistakes, tragedy, and heartbreaking missed opportunities. Natural disasters amplify personalities. Cowards become more cowardly. Heroes do truly amazing things.

But as an historian, I almost find it more interesting when these great disasters are generally forgotten. The affected generations believe the disaster will be remembered forever, and in local folklore, that is generally the case. But many of these horrific events are lost to time.

During our last visit to England, I watched a program on the North Sea flood of 1953, a truly interesting event if only because of people's subdued reactions. In the wake of all they'd suffered during WWII, the flood is remembered as an unfortunate nuisance.

In 2005, I read a book called In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor, a fictionalized account of the Johnstown, PA flood of 1889 that claimed over 2,000 lives. I was drawn to the book after seeing a program about the flood on the History Channel. The horrific extent of suffering made me cry. I also read The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin, a chronicle of the 1888 blizzard that claimed over 200 lives across Midwest. Two months later, the more famous Great Blizzard paralyzed the Northeast.

So while at the library on Monday, waiting for the information librarian to return, I browsed the shelves. Two books caught my attention. The first was called The Great Hurricane: 1938 by Cherie Burns, an account of the first hurricane to hit New England since 1869. It claimed more than 700 lives and caused roughly $6 billion in damage (2004 dollars).

But the book that really intrigued me was Firestorm at Peshtigo by Denise Gess and William Lutz. A firestorm is essentially a tornado made of flame, and the one in Peshtigo, WI was the first of its kind. The authors wrote: "Here's a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles (8 km) wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles (200 km) an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass." The fire destroyed 12 towns, scorched a swath of land twice the size of Rhode Island, and claimed 1200-2500 lives. More than 400 people were buried in a mass grave because so few survivors remained to identify the bodies.

Strangely, this fire took place on October 8, 1871--the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. The Chicago fire, by contrast, killed only between 200-300 citizens, but it damaged more than $222 million ($3 trillion today) of property--about a third of the city's entire valuation. Also on the same day, across Lake Michigan, the towns of Holland and Manistee, MI also burned. One speculation is that pieces of Comet Biela sparked these coincidental blazes.

While we may not have heard of the Peshtigo blaze, scientists at the beginning of the 20th century knew of its destructive history. They studied a combination of wind, topography, and ignition sources in what became known as the Peshtigo Paradigm, subsequently applying what they learned to combat situations in World War II. The success of the firebombing of Dresden can be traced directly to what the scientists learned about Peshtigo.

But in the end, I had to put the book back on the shelf. I cannot become sidetracked by random and interesting bits of history. When I read history, story ideas start to flow--especially moments in history that genuinely test the mettle of the people involved. Soon, tho--soon I'll have freetime, maybe, and I'm keeping this at the top of my TBR pile.

Thoughts? Do natural disaster stories intrigue you? Had you heard of some of these forgotten natural disasters? Do you know ones we should be aware of?

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the wind turns the minutes to hours?
"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot

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