Hurricane Katrina already has become the seventh deadliest natural disaster to strike the US, a tragic footnote that comes even as some of the dead are still uncounted.
So far, the official toll across five states is at 710, with New Orleans accounting for most of the dead. Those numbers, while horrific, raised the possibility that earlier fears of fatalities reaching 10,000 or more might not prove true.
If casualties rose that high, it would place the devastation in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast with such disasters as the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 or the Johnstown Flood of 1889, cataclysmic events that reshaped government policy and captured the nation's sympathy for generations.
"In recent history, this one's bound to be an extraordinary disaster," said Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M.
That's not only because of the deaths and destruction, but also because of the vast numbers of people displaced, Peacock and other experts said.
"Just the fact that a major American city had to be evacuated, there's no precedent for that -- not just in American history, but world history," said Theodore Steinberg, author of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disasters in America, and a history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Hurricane Andrew in 1992, up until now the most expensive hurricane, killed just 26 people, most in southern Florida. It doesn't even rank among the top 10 deadliest natural disasters.
Taking roughly 700 lives each were the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 (720 deaths estimated), the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 (700 deaths estimated), the Georgia-South Carolina Hurricane of 1881 (700 deaths estimated) and the Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which took an estimated 695 lives in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
Only the deadliest five US disasters killed 1,000 or more. These include the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, with some 8,000 deaths; the Great Okeechobee Hurricane that struck Florida in 1928, with more than 2,500 dead; the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Flood, 1889, estimated 2,200-plus; and two hurricanes in 1893 -- one in Louisiana that killed more than 2,000, and one in South Carolina and Georgia that took somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 lives, according to Rusty Pfost, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
And the toll doesn't even compare to some of the sweeping devastation seen around the world, such as last year's tsunami or the deaths in Central America caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. But this year's disaster may lodge itself more firmly in the public mind because of the searing images that came with it of evacuees left for days without food and water, the ineffectiveness of government officials.
"We failed in terms of preparedness and response to this event. We can't really afford to forget," said Havidan Rodriguez, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.
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