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23 great books about natural and man-made disasters.

  • Feb 11, 2010
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Over the years I have been fascinated by books about disasters both natural and man-made. It is definitely one of my favorite genres of non-fiction books. I find that while the facts about the disaster are quite interesting I am much more interested in how and why various public officials and the members of the community react to such misfortune. Inevitably many heroes emerge from these unfortunate situations. Once again, these books are presented for your consideration in no particular order. I enjoyed each and every one of them and have reviewed them all here on Lunch.
Devastation On The Delaware
I was contacted by the author of this book and was asked to read and review this book. Fabulous! In August 1955 more than 100 people living along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey lost their lives. Three terrifying days and nights are still remembered with awe in the Delaware River Valley. Record-breaking rainfall—almost two feet in some places—from twin hurricanes abruptly ended a withering drought, but the relief was short-lived . It was overshadowed by terror and destruction that tore away bridges and snatched people, still sleeping, from their beds in the middle of the night. One of the best disaster books I have read to date.
See the full review, "Riveting account of the historic flood of August 1955.".
Trapped The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster
"Trapped" is the story of the worst coal mine fire in U.S. history, and still stands as that country's third worst coal mine disaster. It is a story of heroism and cowardice, faith and despair, tragedy and survival against incredible odds--a true story that still resonates today. The Cherry Mine Disaster was a catalyst for changes in mining and child labor laws, and the first application of Workers Compensation in the U.S. I absolutely loved this book and highly recommend it
See the full review, "Absolutely riveting.....you won't put this one down!!!".
Sudden Sea The Great Hurricane of 1938
Here in Southern New England the 1938 hurricane is legend. The amazing thing is that as this monster storm chugged up the Atlantic coast no one in Long Island or Southern New England had any idea it was coming. Thank God for the life-saving technology we have at our disposal today!
See the full review, "Exceptionally well written account of a horrifying disaster.".
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
A senseless fire with a large loss of life. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York's Greenwich Village. 146 people were killed. Many died because management had locked fire doors in an effort to make sure workers did not leave early. This book discusses both the fire itself and the prevailing socio-economic climate in NYC. Not a bad book.
See the full review, "Another tragedy that did not have to happen!!!!!,".
The Raging Sea
Prior to reading "The Raging Sea" I was not aware that a tsunami had struck Northern California in the early 1960's. Nor was I aware that an earthquake in Alaska could trigger a tsunami in Hawaii. Fascinating read!
See the full review, "And now it has happened again in Crescent City!".
Black Cloud The Great Hurricane of 1928
The great hurricane of 1928 claimed 2,500 lives, and the long-forgotten story of the casualties, as told in Black Cloud, continues to stir passion. Among the dead were 700 black Floridians—men, women, and children who were buried in an unmarked West Palm Beach ditch during a racist recovery and rebuilding effort that conscripted the labor of blacks as latter-day slaves. Palm Beach Post reporter Eliot Kleinberg has penned the gripping and tragic tale of 1928's killer hurricane from dozens of interviews with survivors, diary entries, accounts from newspapers, government documents, and reports from the National Weather Service and the Red Cross.
See the full review, "Compelling account of devasting 1928 hurricane.".
The Day The Earth Caved In
"The Day the Earth Caved In" is an unprecedented and riveting account of the nation's worst mine fire, beginning on Valentine's Day, 1981, when twelve-year-old Todd Domboski plunged through the earth in his grandmother's backyard in Centralia, Pennsylvania. In astonishing detail, award-winning journalist Joan Quigley, the granddaughter of Centralia miners, ushers readers into the dramatic world of the underground blaze——from the media circus and back-room deal-making spawned in the wake of Todd's sudden disappearance, to the inner lives of every day Centralians who fought a government that wouldn't listen. You will discover how as the situation evolved the people of Centralia would be forced to choose sides. There were those who favored proposals to simply give up and relocate the town while others were bound and determined to stay put and save the town. The dispute pitted neighbor vs. neighbor and families were often divided on the issue. A fascinating book!
See the full review, "Bureaucratic bungling and denial left Centralia PA a town divided.".
Hurricanes and The Middle Atlantic States
Over the years any number of books have been written about the devastating hurricanes that have struck coastal New England. Likewise, there are a whole host of books available about the history of hurricanes in the great state of Florida. Yet, when he sought to do some research on the history of hurricanes in the Middle Atlantic states Rick Schwartz discovered to his great consternation that very little had been written about the subject and that no really comprehensive book on this topic had ever been written. So Rick Schwartz decided to correct this glaring oversight himself. After more than six years of painstaking research "Hurricanes And The Middle Atlantic States" was released in 2007. This is a book that proves to be well worth your time and attention. A fine cover-to-cover read and a terrific research volume.
See the full review, "Bit of a stretch as a cover-to-cover read but a magnificent reference volume".
Chicago Death Trap
Since I work only about five minutes away from the site of the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I. where 100 people lost their lives in February 2003, I felt compelled to read "Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903". Relying heavily on newspaper accounts of the disaster, Nat Brandt does a masterful job of recreating the awful events of that frigid December afternoon in 1903 when 602 people, mostly women and children, lost their lives in the Iroquois Theatre fire in downtown Chicago. Another heartbreaking story of a tragedy that was exacerbated by greed and extremely poor judgement on the part of the owners of this theater. A great read!
See the full review, "Heartbreaking account of the worst fire in U.S. history.".
The Worst Hard TIme
Prior to reading "The Worst Hard Time" my knowledge of the calamity known as the "Dust Bowl" was limited to not much more than a passing reference in a high school history book and perhaps a few articles in the newspaper. I simply had no idea of the scope and the magnitude of this tragedy. A real eye-opener for me. An extremely important event in American history!
See the full review, "Particularly relevant in the turbulant economic times in which we live.".
When The Dancing Stopped
A very bizarre set of circumstances here. Reads like a novel but this is a true story folks! During the dark days of the Great Depression, thousands of weary souls escaped their bleak lives for a week of paradise aboard the Ward Line's glamorous cruise ship, the Morro Castle. It was the most famous passenger liner of its day, lightning fast, elegantly appointed. It was also a ticking time bomb. It was the summer of 1934. Two sailors joined the Morro Castle crew, one a teenager on his first job away from home, the other a dangerous psychopath. Within two months, they would witness the end of the party in a single night of death, killer storms, and catastrophic fire. And that was only the beginning of a twenty-year-long story. An endlessly fascinating book.
Ship Ablaze
This is one of the most heartbreaking true stories you will ever read. In fact, the fire aboard the steamboat known as General Slocum was New York City's worst disaster prior to 9/11. It was the summer of 1904 and the steamship was chartered only for a lazy excursion from Manhattan to Long Island Sound. But a fire erupted minutes into the trip, forcing hundreds of terrified passengers into the water. By the time the captain found a safe shore for landing 1,021 had perished. Nearly all of those who died came from the same neighborhood and parish church that had chartered the boat for the day. A great read!
See the full review, "EXTRA!!! Read all about NYC's worst disaster prior to 9/11.".
Fire in The Grove
Saturday night, November 28, 1942, Boston suffered its worst disaster ever. At the city's premier nightspot, the Cocoanut Grove, the largest nightclub fire in United States history took the lives of 492 people-nearly one of every two people on the premises. So just who was responsible for the horrendous loss of life at the Cocoanut Grove? As you will learn in "Fire In The Grove" there is no shortage of potential candidates. Barney Welansky had owned the Cocoanut Grove for nearly a decade. This was a well- connected individual and city officials like Mayor Tobin and Fire Commisioner Reilly tended to look the other way with regards to safety issues at the club. An all-too familiar story plays out once again. A phenomenol read!
See the full review, "The story of the fire at the Cocoanut Grove is all too familiar.".
Dark Tide The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919
In "Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919" author Stephen Puleo does a terrific job of reconstructing the events that led up to the collapse of the 50 foot high steel tank that held over two million gallons of all things--molasses. When the dust had cleared 21 people lost their lives and scores more were injured. The entire waterfront area adjacent to the tank was levelled. A portion of the nearby overhead rail had collapsed. Hundreds of family pets and dozens of police horses were lost. Lives were changed forever. We learn about the suffering of many of the victims in these pages. Some of the descriptions of what happened that day are simply unimaginable. I live next door in Rhode Island and in all my born days I had never heard of this. Interesting book.
See the full review, "Engrossing account of the most bizarre disaster I have ever heard of.".
Under A Flaming Sky
Imagine suddenly being caught in a firestorm where temperatures reached 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. This is exactly the situation the people of the tiny town of Hinckley, Minnesta found themselves in on a lazy summer Saturday in 1894. Author Daniel James Brown, a direct descendant of two of the Hinckley survivors, offers up an incredible book that captures all of the trauma, all of the heartbreak and the unspeakable pain and heroism that emerged on that day. It is a book you will find hard to put down. Recommended reading for sure.
See the full review, "Unimaginable horror in the woods of Northern Minnesota.".
Not One Drop
Author Riki Ott was there when it happened. And ever since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 she has been fighting the good fight seeking justic for those whose lives were changed forever by this environmental disaster. And Riki Ott is no rank amateur when it comes to these issues. She is a rare combination of commercial salmon "fisherm'am" and PhD marine biologist. As such, she knows what she is talking about. This excellent book will get you up to speed on these issues. You will discover that after more than two decades the cleanup is still not complete in Prince William Sound.
See the full review, "People in the Gulf should know......two decades later the cleanup is still not complete in Alaska!!".
Three Mile Island A Nuclear Crisis in Historical
Former Pennsylvania governor Richard Thornburgh was in his first year in office in March 1979 when the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island forced his administration to confront the possible evacuation of thousands of people. The decisions that he and other state and federal officials made in response to this accident are the subject of the 2004 book "Three Mile Island". Author J. Samuel Walker captures the high human drama surrounding the accident, sets it in the context of the heated debate over nuclear power in the seventies, and analyzes the social, technical, and political issues it raised. Although the book can be a bit challenging because of some of the technical jargon I found it was still well worth reading.
See the full review, "A somewhat difficult read but an important research volume.".
Not Just The Levees Broke
The story of how Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc came to write "Not Just The Levees Broke" is a fascinating one indeed. This incredible opportunity came along after Phyllis was interviewed for Spike Lee's documentary film "When The Levees Broke". Spike Lee was extremely impressed with what Phyllis had to say and the way she was able to say it. It was apparent to Lee that Phyllis was "the dominent voice in the piece". Well one thing led to another and before long the chance to do a book came along. And Phyllis made the most of her once in a lifetime opportunity. Hear the story of Katrina from an ordinary citizen who lived through this ordeal. A fine effort from a first time author.
See the full review, "We need to hear more from "regular" Americans like Phyllis Montana-Leblanc".
The Great Hurricane 1938
Another book about the 1938 hurricane. Not a bad read but if you are going to read any book on this storm I would recommend R.A. Scotti's "Sudden Sea".
See the full review, "Experience the horror of a category 5 hurricane that no one was expecting".
Islands In A Storm
In the middle part of the 1850's an epidemic of deadly yellow fever swept New Orleans. Those with the means fled. Many of them traveled to Isle Derniere, an emerging island retreat on the Gulf of Mexico, presuming it a safe haven. But on August 10, 1856 with virtually no warning a powerful hurricane swept across the island, killing most of its 400 inhabitants. The Isle Derniere, already a narrow ribbon of sand, was devastated. Island in a Storm is the riveting true story of the people who faced this fierce hurricane, their bravery and cowardice, luck and misfortune, life and death. This was one of the best books I read in all of 2009.
See the full review, "Unimaginable horror off the Louisiana coast.".
Author Nando Parrado was unconscious for three days before he woke to discover that the plane carrying his rugby team, as well as their family members and supporters, to an exhibition game in Chile had crashed somewhere deep in the Andes. He soon learned that many were dead or dying—among them his own mother and sister. Those who remained were stranded on a lifeless glacier at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, with no supplies and no means of summoning help. They struggled to endure freezing temperatures, deadly avalanches, and then the devastating news that the search for them had been called off. This is a true story of courage and grit and determination that you will never forget!
See the full review, "A story of courage, determination, & resourcefulness you will never forget.".
35 Miles From Shore
On May 2, 1970, a DC-9 jet with 57 passengers and a crew of six departed from New York's JFK International Airport en route to the tropical island of St. Maarten, but four hours and 34 minutes later the flight ended in the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean. It was, and remains, the only open-water ditching of a commercial jet. I found "35 Miles From Shore: The Ditching and Rescue of ALM Flight 980" to be a well-written and meticulously researched book. about a most unusual tragedy.
See the full review, "An unfortunate confluence of circumstances would doom ALM 980.".
Mighty Fitz The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald
The disappearance of the Edmund Fitzgerald remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in maritime history. The specifics of what happened to the "Mighty Fitz" in the early hours of November 10, 1975, will never be known. What we do know: The Edmund Fitzgerald, a massive ore carrier, had been fighting its way through a pounding November storm on Lake Superior. She was losing ground-the Fitz's radar was out, and she had taken on water in the midst of gale-force winds and mountainous seas-but there was no reason to think she wouldn't find safe harbor at Whitefish Point, Michigan. Last word from the ship's captain: "We are holding our own." Suddenly the ship disappeared from radar. Michael Schumacher relays in vivid detail the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald, its many productive years on the waters of the Great Lakes, its tragic demise, the search effort and investigation, as well as the speculation and the controversy that followed in the wake of the disaster.
See the full review, "People are still very interested some three decades later.".

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February 13, 2010
What an amazing list! I'm adding a ton of these titles to my future reading list on Goodreads. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
February 13, 2010
Thanks for the compliment. What is Goodreads?
February 13, 2010
Goodreads is a free online web service for tracking books you own or have read. You can also write review, answer trivia questions, join groups, and connect with new people. It's a pretty fun site. Since you asked me this question, and I absolutely love this site, I will write a review in a couple of days about it. I'll send you a message if you would like to read it when I'm done. :)
February 12, 2010
Thanks for the tip! I've gotten a couple of great ideas from you guys. Books about disasters jsut might be my favorite genre.
February 12, 2010
Excellent list! You've made me add some more titles to my "must read" list. One recommendation; "The Curse of the Narrows" by Laura M. Mac Donald.
February 12, 2010
Such an interesting list. I hope to read some of these books soon. I would add The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough to your list. I read this years ago and am still haunted by the thought of the elite hunting club that changed the course of history by creating a lake to their specifications -- no matter what the consequences. McCullough, as usual, brings history alive.
February 12, 2010
"The Johnstown Flood' sounds like a great idea! Anything by David McCullough is certainly worth reading Thanks for the suggestion.
February 12, 2010
Paul, thank you for all of your wonderful reviews and lists. They are really inspiring!
February 12, 2010
it's really amazing how cool these lists are when you have reviewed everything in the list. So great!! Thanks Paul!
February 11, 2010
Whoa, Paul!  Again, my mind is blown.  I love how you've written reviews on every single one of these books.  I'll check out your reviews, and maybe a few of these books, too.  Thanks! :)
February 11, 2010
Great list! It's such rich information, considering you've also reviewed them all. Thanks Paul!
February 11, 2010
Another fantastic list, Paul. There are some more books in here I feel compelled to read. I have one to recommend to you, however, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage.  I am not quite sure Shackleton's voyage counts as a man-made disaster, but it sure is a compelling story if you haven't read about it before.
About the list creator
Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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