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10 Disasters That Changed the World

Over the past decade, these crises have stretched the world's ideas about what a disaster can do and how best to respond.

Damage to the city of Tacloban, in the Philippines, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. (Photo by Jodie Willard for Direct Relief)
Damage to the city of Tacloban, in the Philippines, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. (Photo by Jodie Willard for Direct Relief)

Every disaster has things to teach us.

Looking back at a decade in which superstorms, wildfires, disease outbreaks, and monster earthquakes have taken unimaginable tolls all over the planet, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.

But learning the lessons of every disaster, every time, is important. Every time, the world can respond more effectively – drawing from past experiences and avoiding past mistakes. As extreme weather worsens, people’s understanding of a disaster’s scope and effect can evolve as well.

Direct Relief has compiled a list of ten disasters that have changed the world over the last ten years. It’s not a comprehensive list, and these crises don’t necessarily have the fastest winds or highest death count.

Instead, they’re events that have had a profound impact on the rest of the world, challenging people’s understanding of what a disaster can be, the damage it can wreak, and how to respond with better vision, awareness, and respect.

Haiti earthquake (2010)

Even before the magnitude 7.0 earthquake, political conflict and a faltering economy had left more than 70% of Haitians in poverty – a cycle of instability that continues today. Infrastructure was weak, with many living in shantytowns.

But the earthquake’s impact was hard to fathom. More than 220,000 people – two percent or more of the population – were killed. One and a half million were displaced.

Makeshift shelters setup in the weeks following Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. (Photo: Gordon Willcock/Direct Relief)

While the initial turmoil was tremendous, the earthquake also revealed fault lines in international aid efforts. Decades after cholera had been eradicated from Haiti, UN peacekeepers responding to the earthquake brought a new strain of the disease with them.

Peacekeepers also fathered hundreds of children, in some cases sexually abusing young girls, a recent study found. Foreign doctors treating earthquake victims were accused of performing unnecessary amputations and other problematic treatments.

Partly in response to the disaster, the WHO developed new procedures for pre-vetting and approving medical teams who want to provide humanitarian aid.

Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011)

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami wave that rose 133 feet at its highest and traveled as far as six miles inland – much larger and more powerful than expected.

That alone would have been cataclysmic enough, but the event also triggered a technological disaster on the scale of the infamous 1986 Chernobyl crisis: a series of nuclear meltdowns and a large-scale release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Although estimates of the death toll vary, as many as 20,000 people were killed, in a country whose wealth and well-developed infrastructure made that number feel impossible.

Hurricane Sandy (2012)

A predicted Category 1 storm quickly morphed into the largest hurricane on record (at the time), causing widespread havoc through the Caribbean before crashing into the United States’ eastern seaboard, taking large swathes of New Jersey and New York, including New York City, offline.

A Direct Relief staff member passes out supplies to people affected by Hurricane Sandy. (Photo by William Vazquez for Direct Relief)
A Direct Relief staff member passes out supplies to people affected by Hurricane Sandy. (Photo by William Vazquez for Direct Relief)

People were choked off from power and heat for days, with many trapped in high-rise buildings, unable to evacuate or procure supplies. Over 100 people died in the United States alone, many from exposure or related conditions.

The event challenged the sense of security felt by many Americans, and frenzy of media attention on seemingly invincible New York City – itself one of the media centers of the world – was unprecedented.

Typhoon Haiyan (2013)

This Category 5 “super typhoon” crashed into the Philippines with wind speeds hovering near 200 miles per hour – at the time, the strongest cyclone ever. No matter what, Haiyan was going to be deadly.

But the sheer scale of disaster was difficult to fathom. The storm surge – rising above 20 feet in some areas – shocked the world. It swept through densely populated areas, including the major city of Tacloban, leaving devastation in its wake.

The storm killed approximately 7,000 people and displaced more than 4 million.

West Africa Ebola outbreak (2014-2016)

The deadliest Ebola outbreak in recorded history. The outbreak began in Guinea and quickly spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia – and striking heavily in urban centers. Ebola killed more than 11,000 people – approximately 40% of those who fell ill – over the course of two years.

The world was horrified by the deadliness and scope of the outbreak, and developed countries were concerned for their own safety – Ebola cases even reached the United States and Europe. The international community dove in to bolster local efforts.

Concern over the deadliness of the disease also spurred more concentration on vaccines and treatments, some of which are being used in the fight against the Democratic Republic of Congo’s current outbreak.

Nepal earthquake (2015)

This magnitude 7.8 earthquake destroyed homes throughout much of the country and toppled tall buildings in Kathmandu, the capital.

A Direct Relief staff member explains the difference between soda and Pedialyte to a child affected by the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
A Direct Relief staff member explains the difference between soda and Pedialyte to a child affected by the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (Photo by Ivan Castaneira for Direct Relief)

Nepal’s weak infrastructure made the earthquake especially dangerous, but the timing of the earthquake was lucky: Because it was a Saturday afternoon, many people were outside their homes. It’s thought that the death toll – nearly 9,000 – could have been much higher.

Nepal’s mountainous terrain made it difficult to access remote areas, which left many of the injured stranded while rescue workers struggled to reach them.

Hurricane Harvey (2017)

At its strongest, Harvey was a Category 4 storm with 130-mile-per-hour winds.

But the storm brought home an important truth: It’s water, not wind, that’s the most perilous part of a hurricane. Harvey brought trillions of gallons of rain to the southern coast, causing levels of flooding in some places that scientists only expect to see once every 500,000 years. Tens of thousands were displaced, critical access to health care was cut off, and 88 people died.

Hurricane Maria (2017)

When the devastating storm hit first Dominica (as a Category 5 hurricane) and then Puerto Rico (as a Category 4), it left devastation in its wake. Both countries were plunged into darkness – in Puerto Rico’s case, for up to a year in some places.

But the storm drew particular attention to Puerto Rico’s status as a United States territory. 3.4 million citizens of one of the most developed countries in the world went without power for months. The loss of power is also thought to be a major factor in many of the 3,000 deaths attributed to the storm.

In addition, federal aid was and remains slow in coming, sparking concerns about unequal treatment.

Cyclone Idai (2019)

The Category 3 storm crashed into southern Africa in March of this year, leaving devastation behind in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. 1,300 people were killed; infrastructure, including many health facilities, was destroyed; and agricultural land was flooded with salty water.

People cross a Cyclone Idai-damaged bridge in Zambezia Province, Mozambique. (Photo courtesy of the Real Medicine Foundation)
People cross a Cyclone Idai-damaged bridge in Zambezia Province, Mozambique. (Photo courtesy of the Real Medicine Foundation)

While all three countries struggle with economic and other issues, severe tropical storms – the kind that regularly plague the Caribbean – have not historically been a problem in southern Africa. Idai made it clear that, as the climate changes, sub-Saharan African countries will have to be aware of tropical storms and have measures in place to protect against them.

Global wildfires (2019)

Slash-and-burn agriculture caused massive, devastating wildfires in both the Amazon and Indonesia, sickening hundreds of thousands and destroying treasured forest and rainforest lands.

The blazes pitted palm oil farmers and beef ranchers against the international community, raising the question of how to meet individual needs as the world works to fight climate change and conserve valuable spaces.

And months after the Camp Fire killed 85 people in California and sent shock waves through the United States, a spate of wildfires erupted across the state, displacing hundreds of thousands and threatening a future of large-scale, climate-fueled blazes.

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