The Worst Natural Disasters You Never Heard About

Thousands of people were killed. Cities were leveled and billions of dollars in damage was caused. But most of these natural disasters that caused all this devastation never got much media attention. Like the past week's earthquakes and tsunamis in the South Pacific, disasters in far-off lands often get bumped quickly from prime news real estate, even when the scope and scale of the damage is large. Only when the death toll shatters records, as did the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, media attention lingers. Here's our take on the biggest natural disasters that didn't get the attention they deserved:

1. Tangshan earthquake
China
July 28, 1976
Death toll: 242,000
Tangshan, an industrial city of 1 million located east of Beijing, was hit by one of the deadliest earthquakes on record just after 3 a.m. on the morning of July 28, 1976. Compounded by an aftershock that proved to be nearly as destructive, it leveled the city and left more than 242,000 people dead, according to official estimates. The force of the quake razed buildings and destroyed railroad tracks and roads, blocking relief efforts and forcing nearly the entire population of the city into makeshift shantytowns for months. Making matters worse, the Chinese Communist Party, which was racked with internal disputes, refused to accept aid from outside the country, including from the United States, the United Nations, and the Red Cross; it managed to keep the official death toll secret for three years. But despite the political intrigue and sheer scale of the devastation, at no point in time did news of the quake make the front page of The New York Times.

2. Banqiao Dam flood
China
August 1975
Death toll: 90,000–230,000
Touted as a testament to the strength of the Chinese Communist Party, the Banqiao dam was built to withstand the kind of typhoon that only comes along once every 1,000 years. It didn't last nearly that long. In August 1975, silt buildup and water pressure from Typhoon Nina caused the dam to collapse, prompting a domino effect of 62 additional dam failures that sent walls of water gushing into the valleys near the Ru River. But press coverage both in and outside was all but nonexistent at the time. It wasn't until 1995, when Human Rights Watch combed through old technical books and articles on China's dams, that the human cost of the largest dam disaster in human history became public.

3. Ashgabat earthquake
Turkmenistan
Oct. 5, 1948
Death toll: 110,000
An earthquake ripped through Soviet-controlled Central Asia in 1948, leveling what is now Turkmenistan's capital city of Ashgabat, where almost all brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged, and freight trains were derailed. At the time, Josef Stalin, who controlled much of Central Asia, ordered that information about the earthquake be suppressed. For years, sources listed the casualty total at 10,000, but a report released in 1988 revised the death-toll figure to 110,000. Since then, the issue became a propagandistic rallying cry for nationalist movements, including the one led by Saparmurat Nyyazow, the "president for life" who ruled the country after independence in 1991. His mother and extended family members were killed in the quake.

4. Hurricane Stan
C
entral America
October 2005
Death toll: 2,000
Hurricane Stan struck Central America in early October 2005, laying waste to much of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and parts of Mexico, killing up to 2,000 people. But Stan made landfall only a few months after Katrina and Rita, and just before the Pakistan earthquake, all of which exhausted the public's appetite for disaster stories—and eagerness to donate. That, of course, was of little comfort to the some 40,000 people living in hastily constructed temporary shelters in Guatemala, the hardest-hit and most impoverished country affected, where mudslides and floods continued to batter the highlands after the storm had passed.

5. Guatemala City earthquake
Guatemala
February 1976
Death toll: 23,000
Guatemala City received plenty of press attention in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake that destroyed almost the entire city in February 1976. The numbers alone were compelling enough: 23,000 dead and more than a million people—one sixth of Guatemala's total population—left homeless. The relief effort came quickly, too; the U.S. government provided an immediate $3.6 million in emergency aid, followed by nearly $15 million in voluntary contributions, all of which was distributed by a Guatemalan military widely praised for its handling of the crisis. But the disaster didn't stop there. The import of tremendous amounts of food aid right after harvest time had the unintended impact of causing food prices to plummet, depriving the recipients of a source of income. Thousands of people remained homeless for years after the earthquake, with an economic impact that fell so heavily on the poor that many dubbed it a "class-quake."

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