Outside magazine, April 1997
with Occasional Tsunamis
Is it us, or do things seem to be getting a little less pleasant out there?
By Debra Shore
Golly, it was a super year, wasn’t it? We’re speaking of last year, which wasn’t that long ago if you run tardy on stuff, like government meteorologists do. They’re the folks who tally up all the world’s weather-related disasters, and as we mentioned, 1996 was a really super year. Hurricane Fran, drought in Mongolia, an Old Testament barrage
of rainstorms, tsunamis, and typhoons throughout southern Asia–not to mention volcanoes and earthquakes, the planet’s own internal weather. According to the world’s largest reinsurer, 1996 managed some 600 major natural disasters, wreaking $60 billion in damage–a net disaster increase of 400 percent since the 1960s. That’s good weather.
Time tends to smear such examples of an increasingly dyspeptic Mother Earth into a blur of windblown CNN reporters, so let’s look back. In T. S. Eliot’s day April may have been the cruelest month, but these days it’s got plenty of competition.
January 1: The year begins with a bang, as a 7.7-magnitude earthquake hits near Sulawesi in Indonesia, killing eight people.
January 2: 20 million monarch butterflies–one-sixth of the world’s population–freeze to death in a freak snowstorm in Mexico’s Michoacan state.
January 8: Blizzards whack the U.S. eastern seaboard, dropping 27.6 inches of snow in Philadelphia, 30 inches in New York City, and four feet in Snowshoe, West Virginia; 154 die.
January 21: 11,000 homes are destroyed and 32 people are killed as heavy flooding swamps Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey, and New York.
February 1: An arctic front continues to assault Minnesota and the Great Plains, dropping temperatures to a record minus-60 degrees. Ninety people die.
February 3: Yunan, China, is struck by a 6.5-magnitude earthquake that leaves one million people homeless and 251 dead.
February 6: Vicious blizzards in a remote section of China’s Sichuan Province kill 42 people and injure 40,000; 58,000 head of livestock also freeze to death.
February 13: More than a foot of rain pummels Rio de Janeiro and southern Brazil, killing 87.
February 17: An earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale rocks the New Guinea Trench, 45 miles north of the Indonesian island of Biak. Resulting 21-foot-high tsunamis sweep 3,000 homes and 107 people out to sea.
February 21: Freakishly warm weather boosts Dallas temps to 95 degrees; continued dry conditions spark wildfires throughout the Southwest, destroying 640,000 acres. Meanwhile, an earthquake strikes off Peru, loosing a 30-foot-high tsunami on the town of Chimbote and drowning ten fishermen.
March 2: The Ministry for Emergencies in Russia’s North Osetia grandly announces plans to assemble a team of soothsayers and mediums to study the causes of these escalating natural disasters. All such magi will be accorded the coveted status of “experts” at the Ministry, says an official.
March 14: The deputy mayor of Kobe, Japan, in charge of rebuilding the city after a January 1995 earthquake that killed 6,005, commits suicide by self-immolation. He reportedly had been working seven days a week for 14 months.
March 24: In western China, an avalanche swallows 1,000 feet of highway between Sichuan and Tibet, along with 56 people, all of whom die.
April 6: An avalanche on Ecuador’s Cotopaxi volcano, caused by abnormally heavy snowfalls, buries eight climbers.
April 19: 42 tornadoes touch down in Illinois in one day, including one that consumes the home of the regional director of the National Weather Service.
April 30: The Mongolian government announces that drought-fed brush fires in the eastern part of the country have killed 23.
May 13: 600 are killed and 34,000 are injured when a tornado destroys 80 villages in north-central Bangladesh.
May 19: On the same day that a quarter-mile-wide asteroid whizzes past Earth just 281,000 miles away–the largest known object ever to get so close and one that
astronomers didn’t notice until only a few days earlier–severe storms in the upper Midwest cause massive flooding in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.
June 26: Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia photograph smoke from rampant wildfires, ignited by lightning and fueled by the drought, that eventually burn 63,000 acres in Arizona and 45,000 acres in Utah.
July 6: A rain-swollen Yangtze River crests five feet above flood level in central China, killing more than 600 people and injuring 33,000. Also, Alan Weaver, of Arlington, Texas, begins marketing the Safe-N-Side, a box of half-inch-thick steel that can be crawled into during a tornado. The box weighs 1,300 pounds and sells for $1,985; Weaver
claims it can safely shield an inhabitant from a two-by-four flying 100 miles per hour.
July 9-14: Hurricane Bertha brushes the Bahamas, hammers the U.S. Virgin Islands, and then strikes the North Carolina coast near Wilmington. Hundred-knot winds cause $230 million in damage; eight people are killed.
August 7: Flash floods deluge a campground in the Spanish Pyrenees, killing 85 vacationers.
August 10: More than 300 die and 4,500 are injured as floods cripple northern China’s Liaoning province.
August 22: A sudden snowstorm kills 239 in India’s Jammu-Kashmir state. The victims were on the annual Amaranth pilgrimage to a remote cave to worship an ice image of Siva, the Hindu god of destruction.
August 24: Monsoons in Pakistan damage 4.5 million acres of crops and render a million people homeless. At least 80 die as nearly 1,400 villages are flooded in Gujranwala and Wazirabad districts.
September 5: Hurricane Fran hits the Atlantic coast, plucking trees, snapping power lines, and gutting coastal homes along the Carolina shore. Fran kills 36 people and causes $5 billion in damage; at the height of the storm, Butch Segars of Wilmington, North Carolina, pulls out his 12-gauge shotgun, braves the 85-knot winds tearing through his
backyard, and fires one well-aimed round, knocking down a large limb that threatened to crash through his living room window. “I thought it was a pretty good shot,” he later says.
September 7: The United Nations World Meteorological Organization announces that the ozone hole over Antarctica has expanded to ten million square miles.
September 2: A torrential rain washes out railways and bridges 36 miles north of Khartoum, Sudan. Fifteen die, with their bodies reportedly coming ashore miles downstream on the banks of the Nile.
September 10: Typhoon Sally comes aground in southern China, leaving 114 dead and 110 more reported missing. Wind uproots almost every tree in Zhanjiang, and 200,000 homes collapse.
September 27: Lava flowing from the Maderas volcano in Nicaragua engulfs the village of El Corozol, killing six.
October 18: Monsoons in southern India cause flooding that drowns more than 300 people.
October 28: Floods in Vietnam’s southern provinces submerge more than 600,000 homes and kill 96.
November 6: The Indian coastal village of Balusutippa, on the Bay of Bengal, is erased by a cyclone; 2,000 die.
November 12: Storms dump four feet of snow on Cleveland. Eight die in traffic accidents, and one airliner skids off a runway.
December 23: Russian officials announce that reindeer, unable to feed because pastures have been coated by an unusual ice storm, have starved to death on the Chukotskiy Peninsula.
December 25: Avalanches trap hundreds of motorists in the 2.5-mile Rosky Tunnel on Russia’s Transcaucasian Highway; 240 people are rescued after nearly a week, but 60 drivers refuse to abandon their vehicles and remain stranded for ten more days.
December 27: Tropical storm Greg hits the coast of the Malaysian state of Sabah; 170 people are killed.
January 1, 1997: Reacting to the extraordinary increase in weather catastrophes, the Insurance Information Institute changes its official definition of “catastrophe.” To qualify under the new rules, an event must cause at least $25 million in damage, up from $5 million.
Illustrations by David Miller