Nasty Mother Nature

The Perfect Storm, Titanic, Twister. Hollywood blockbusters – with their hair-raising, havoc-wreaking special effects – have made disaster experts of us all. Or have they? See how many of these natural calamities you can name.

1. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was the anthem that drew international attention and a massive relief effort to this crisis in the Sahel of Africa that claimed more than 600,000 lives between 1972 and 1985.

2. Both a disaster and a place name, this eco-calamity of the early 1930s – the result of massive overplanting and overgrazing – kicked up black blizzards of windblown soil that blocked out the sun and piled up drifts of dirt. Describing its many thousand refugees, novelist John Steinbeck wrote: “They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless – restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do.”

3. Believed to be the most devastating event of its kind, this disaster was preceded by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake on July 17, 1998. It flattened three villages, ripped palm and coconut trees from the ground, killed more than 3,000 people and left another 6,000 homeless.

4. In 79 AD, this famous disaster buried at least four cities in Campania under 12 feet of pumice lapilli, leaving fossilized artifacts and human remains well preserved for later archeologists to unearth. According to Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the event, “it resembled a very tall pine tree... The cloud went high and expanded in different branches.”

With a power equal to 21,000 atomic bombs, this 1883 cataclysm was said to have been heard from Indonesia to Australia. It propelled soot 50 miles into the air and plunged the region into darkness for two days. The blast set off tidal waves from South America to Hawaii, including one measuring 120 feet that claimed some 36,000 lives.

It didn’t loft anyone into the land of Oz, but this natural disaster did kill 695 people on March 18, 1925 – ripping some 200 miles across central Missouri through Illinois and southern Indiana. It’s the deadliest disaster of its kind on record.

This absurdly misnamed weather anomaly boosts ocean temperatures every two to seven years, sometimes with disastrous results. A 1985 episode brought typhoons to usually placid Tahiti, severe drought to Australia and torrential floods to central Chile. Historian Mike Davis traces “the seeds of underdevelopment in ... the Third World” back to late-19th-century cycles of this climactic perturbation.

China’s recorded history tells of more than a thousand major outbreaks of this disaster, but a 1931 episode made 35,000 square miles uninhabitable and rendered 40 million people homeless.

In one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century, a dozen Peruvian villages were wiped out by this 1970 calamity that left tens of thousands dead. Eight years earlier, a related disaster struck the same area, taking 3,500 lives.

10. Californians may think they cornered the market on this event, but the record books tell a different story. The most deadly one dates back to 1556, killing 830,000 people. (For extra credit, name the most powerful one ever measured. It struck in 1960, miraculously killing only about 2,000 people.)




Contest Rules
1. We are looking for 10 specific natural disasters with an identifying name or location. For example, if the clue were “a 1998 disaster in the western Caribbean considered the strongest and deadliest of its kind,” the correct answer would be: Hurricane Mitch.

2. We will award up to five $30 gift certificates from Borders Books and Music to catastophiles who correctly identify each cataclysm. If more than five correct entries are received, winners will be drawn by lot.

3. Send your answers by no later than June 15 to:

The Last Word
c/o USC Trojan Family Magazine
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-2538

Submissions by fax (213-821-1100) and email <> are welcome.

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Last Word Solutions - Winter 2001

Illustration by Matthew Martin

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