Natural Disasters

Click the image to learn more. In 1947, a January blizzard brought sixteen inches of snowfall to Milwaukee and crippled the city. Pictured here the day after the storm, Teutonia Avenue is only partially plowed and snow drifts are piled high along the sidewalks.

While some disasters have become inextricably associated with a particular U.S. city—the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the Chicago Fire of 1871, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900—Milwaukee has no such association. The city and the surrounding area have, for the most part, been spared from major loss of life or property destruction related to natural events such as earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, and even tornadoes. In fact, the Milwaukee area lacks the potential for most types of natural disasters, simply given its distance from oceans and fault lines. Still, the southeastern corner of Wisconsin has not been completely spared nature’s fury. Tornadoes, strong storms, and a killer heat wave have caused significant destruction and loss of life. Yet it is precisely some of the worst disasters in the history of Milwaukee that bring into question the tenuous line separating a truly natural disaster—a calamity unquestionably caused by forces outside human control—and a human-made disaster played out within the context of a natural phenomenon.[1]

Southeastern Wisconsin owes much of its good fortune to both its geography and geology. Located about 750 and 875 miles, respectively, from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the region is out of reach of the most destructive winds and storm surges produced by hurricanes. Tsunamis are, for the same reason, a non-threat. Without high mountains to accumulate snow, avalanches are not an issue, and the rolling landscape prevents landslides. The annual scourge of wildfires that threaten many western states are virtually unknown in southeastern Wisconsin. There are no active fault lines near Milwaukee, nor any active volcanoes within 1,500 miles. Using data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Forest Service and other sources, news outlets often rank Milwaukee as one of the cities in the United States most immune to natural disasters.[2]

Earthquakes are rare in southeast Wisconsin and when they do occur they are often so weak as to go unnoticed. The strongest earthquake recorded in Milwaukee (and the only earthquake felt in Milwaukee that is thought to have originated in southeast Wisconsin) registered 4.0 on a seismometer at Marquette University on May 6, 1947. The earthquake “knocked dishes off shelves and pictures off walls” but no significant property damage was reported. Approximately twenty earthquakes that occurred beyond Wisconsin’s borders were strong enough to be felt in Wisconsin, but none was strong enough to cause damage. The nearest major fault line to Milwaukee, the New Madrid Seismic Zone, lies just over 400 miles to the south, stretching from Cairo, Illinois, southwest into Missouri and Arkansas. While a major earthquake in this area would certainly be felt in Milwaukee, the brunt of the destruction would be in cities much closer to the epicenter such as St. Louis and Memphis. A phenomenon known as post-glacial rebounding—a stretching and cracking of bedrock owing to the release of glacial weight—can also cause very minor earthquakes in the area, but nothing that would result in significant damage.[3]

While rare, a tidal event similar to a small tsunami can occur on the Lake Michigan coast, though such an event has never been recorded in the Milwaukee area. Called a “seiche,” the tide-like motions occur when extreme differences in barometric pressure over the large Lake Michigan and Lake Huron basin cause an oscillation “like water sloshing in a bathtub.” Seiches have been known to raise lake water levels in a targeted locale by as much as thirteen feet in a matter of minutes. In 1954, eight people were killed in Chicago as just such a small tidal wave engulfed the dock on which they were standing.[4] No doubt few Wisconsin coastal dwellers live in fear of, or indeed are even aware of, such an unlikely natural event.

Blizzards are a regular feature of Milwaukee winters, and while they can hamper transportation and cause some damage, they are typically more of an inconvenience than a disaster. Still, a few blizzards have been of historically noteworthy severity. Perhaps the most famous of these was the blizzard of 1947. The winter storm officially dumped over sixteen inches of snow in Milwaukee between January 28 and 30, generating in some place fifteen-foot drifts and shutting down much of the city for more than a week. Over 400 streetcars were stuck in place, and drivers left half-buried cars in the street for up to a week after the storm. Teams of residents shoveled side streets and railway tracks in an effort to get the city moving again. Five deaths were blamed on the blizzard, all a result of heart attacks induced by overexertion. Rail service resumed within forty-eight hours, though freight was stalled for ten days, and clean-up efforts extended into February. A similar storm between February 1 and 2, 2011 dropped twelve to twenty four inches of snow throughout the region but caused only a two-day shutdown. But by far the worst blizzard to hit Milwaukee occurred between March 2 and 4 in 1881, depositing twenty-eight and a half inches of snow in the city but up to four feet in some areas. Residents reported snow drifts of over twenty feet tall, completely burying some homes. While the storm of 1881 produced much greater snow accumulations than 1947 or 2011, the 1947 blizzard arguably had greater stopping power. The weeks following the 1881 blizzard saw rising temperatures, and the more direct sunlight of March helped to melt the mountains of snow. By contrast, the storm of 1947 was followed by persistent below freezing temperatures and sixty miles-per-hour winds, and unlike 1881, in 1947 there were cars to dig out. Melting and less infrastructure did not help following the blizzard of 2011, but the city had learned its lesson after 1947 and was much better equipped to mechanically remove snow following major winter storms.[5]

Tornadoes are perhaps the most spectacular natural phenomenon—though by no means the most deadly or destructive—to affect the region. Although they occur with less frequency and intensity than in the Great Plains and southern U.S., tornadoes are a regular meteorological phenomenon from April through September, with the greatest number of tornadoes occurring during the month of June (The state of Wisconsin averages twenty three tornadoes annually, and ranks twenty-first among U.S. states in tornado frequency).[6] Sirens initially installed during the Cold War to warn of air raids or nuclear attack were soon adapted to signal tornado warnings, and schools throughout Wisconsin have adopted recommendations from the U.S. Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the National Weather Service, and the State of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction enumerating precautions to take in the event of a tornado warning. Tornadoes are the only natural threat to southeast Wisconsin for which such a high degree of preparation, rehearsal, and awareness are near universal.

Compared to the fear they elicit and the general public’s level of preparedness, there have been surprisingly few tornado-caused fatalities in the history of southeast Wisconsin. The deadliest tornado to occur in the area struck Racine on May 18, 1883, killing twenty-five and injuring one hundred people. Not until April 11, 1965, did another tornado cause a fatality in the area, when a touchdown in Jefferson County killed three and injured twenty-eight. One of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded in the state descended on West Bend just after midnight on April 4, 1981. The F4 tornado (wind speeds between 207 and 260 miles per hour) killed three and injured fifty three people. Another F4 touched down in the Village of Wales in Waukesha County on April 27, 1984, travelling six and a half miles and leaving a path of destruction that left one dead and fourteen injured and caused $2.5 million in property damage. Indeed, one of the most destructive wind events in the region was not even classified as a tornado, but as a “derecho.” Essentially a storm producing hurricane force winds, the derecho that struck southern Wisconsin on May 30 and 31, 1998, generated wind gusts in excess of one hundred miles per hour, killing one person, flattening trees, and causing $60 million in property damage. Since 1950, when the National Weather Service began keeping a detailed record of tornado events nationwide, a total of fifty-three tornadoes have been recorded as having touched down in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties, ranging in severity from F0 to F4. With the exception of the aforementioned five events, the remainder of the tornadoes generally caused only minor property damage and injuries.[7]

The fact that tornadoes are extremely rare within Milwaukee city limits (since 1967, an area of ninety-six square miles) has led to speculation that the city is somehow “tornado proof.” Since his arrival in Milwaukee in 1836, Increase Lapham routinely noted the effect of Lake Michigan on Milwaukee’s weather. During warmer months, the lake exerts a cooling effect on areas within one to ten miles of the shoreline (depending on wind direction) and has long been known to have a tempering influence on powerful thunderstorms. There is also a widespread belief that larger cities in general are somehow shielded from tornadoes, likely owing to the fact that tornado touchdowns in major cities have indeed been rare. Tornadoes that tore through downtown Nashville in 1998 and Miami in 1997, however, did much to dispel the myth of urban tornado immunity; meteorologists point to the dearth of tornado touchdowns in cities as simply being the result of the small footprint of cities relative to the overall area of a state or region that sees regular tornado formation. The tornado that touched down at Mitchell Airport on March 8, 2000, moved east through St. Francis and Cudahy, wrecking both homes and tornado myths as it went. Not only did it demonstrate that neither Lake Michigan nor an urban landscape could prevent a tornado, it occurred earlier in the season than any previous tornado in Milwaukee County history (though most common during warmer months, tornadoes have been observed in Wisconsin in every month besides February). Tornado touchdowns have been recorded elsewhere along the western shore of Lake Michigan, and “waterspouts” (tornadoes that form over the lake) are regularly seen from the shore. In fact, three tornadoes have struck within Milwaukee’s city limits: two in 1975 and one in 1980. The twisters were relatively weak and caused only minor damage—the two in 1975 did not even merit a mention in local newspapers—but they nevertheless demonstrate that potentially deadly severe weather can affect all residents of southeast Wisconsin, regardless of location or season.[8]

On a national scale, floods have exceeded all other disasters in terms of loss of life and destruction of property, and while tornadoes have claimed more lives in southeast Wisconsin, flooding has mirrored the national trend as the most destructive local natural disaster. Certainly Milwaukee’s floods have never approached the catastrophic scale of events in Sacramento in 1986 or Houston in 2017, for example, but damage resulting from flooding has steadily increased since the early twentieth century. The area averages 34.4 inches of rainfall per year, but at times parts of the region have gotten a third of that total in less than forty-eight hours, causing rivers to burst their banks and low-lying areas to become temporary lakes. Increased development—especially building construction in flood plains, increasing impermeable surfaces, and habits of construction practices—exacerbated the problem over the years. Already by 1850, the Milwaukee Sentinel complained that every heavy rain washed away new streets, filled up sewers, and was becoming a source of constant expense for repairs. A particularly heavy rain in June of 1858 swept away bridges and dams in Waukesha County, inundating lowland areas, and causing “incalculable” damages. By the early twentieth century, as population and development encroached on flood plains and paved surfaces concentrated the flow of area rivers, floods became an almost annual nuisance and a periodic disaster.[9]

By the 1920s, government officials proposed ways to solve the flooding problem. Dynamite was one solution. Late spring thaws coupled with river ice and heavy rain can create natural ice dams, flooding upstream areas until the ice either melts or breaks apart. An early April ice dam along the upper Milwaukee River in 1959 was dynamited to relieve severe flooding in Saukville and Glendale. Local governments also advocated for more municipal pumps, sandbags, larger storm sewers and lining local creeks and rivers with concrete as flooding solutions. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers even suggested cutting a four mile long, ninety foot wide channel between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan near Thiensville in order to divert the river away from more highly populated areas downstream when water was high. (It was never built.) While a myriad of solutions were implemented, zoning was perhaps the most powerful tool in the hands of municipal officials. The Milwaukee County Zoning Ordinance, passed in 1927, was meant in part to prevent building construction in low lying areas prone to flooding. As part of the ordinance, parkways such as the Root River and Honey Creek were built in order to keep development away from area flood plains. The process continued into the twenty-first century as the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District purchased and demolished homes along the Kinnickinnic River. As a Milwaukee Journal editorial opined on June 16, 1965, “In the long run…it is far better to keep people away from the floods than to try and keep floods from people.”

Despite these measures, the deadliest and most destructive floods in southeast Wisconsin have occurred since 1960. A flood in July 1964 claimed the life of a man who had gotten trapped in high water at an underpass in Wauwatosa. A couple died in their submerged automobile during a flood event in April 1973, and record rainfall in August of 1986 resulted in the drowning of an eleven year-old boy in the Kinnickinnic River as well as an eighty-year- old widow in her flooded basement apartment. The worst flooding in the history of southeast Wisconsin occurred following heavy rains in July of 2010. Up to seven and a half inches of rain fell in less than two hours, causing dramatic street flooding, sewer overflows and damage to basements, particularly on the northeast side of Milwaukee and in the northern suburbs of Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, and Glendale. The Journal Sentinel reported that “vehicles looked like surfboards” floating down the street, and at the intersection of North Avenue and Oakland Avenue a sinkhole swallowed an entire SUV. There was also one fatality associated with the flooding. FEMA reported damage to 476 residences and over $12 million in damage to roads and bridges. A disaster declaration by both Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and President Barack Obama provided for up to $45 million in assistance to affected residents, a total which only serves to underscore the relatively benign nature of the flood damage compared to other events labeled as “natural disasters.” In addition, much of the damage was due less to the fact of the heavy rain than to the design of much of Milwaukee County’s sewer system. The combination of storm and sanitary sewers in one system—a design feature concentrated downtown, on the northeast side and in Shorewood—pushed water and sewage into basements and forced the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to release untreated or partially treated sewage into area waterways and Lake Michigan.[10]

Perhaps the most insidious—and one of the most deadly—natural disasters in the history of Milwaukee occurred when a heat wave in mid-July 1995 caused nearly ninety deaths in Milwaukee County. Daytime high temperatures of at least 103 degrees and an average humidity of seventy percent left many elderly residents without air conditioning especially vulnerable to negative health effects of hyperthermia. Fatality estimates trickled in during the week following the heat wave. One early death tally was as high as 197; the large variance between the estimate and the actual death toll was due to the difficulty of ascertaining the extent to which either an underlying health condition or the high temperature was primarily responsible for the fatality. The National Weather Service established the death official death toll at eighty-five. Local governments responded to the tragedy by instituting new measures to alert residents to dangerously hot weather through local media and to ameliorate the effects of excessive heat by opening air conditioned public buildings during off hours and setting up sprinklers in parks. Such efforts have since mitigated the potentially deadly effects of subsequent heat waves. While the CDC reports that heat waves cause more fatalities in the United States each year than all other natural disasters combined, it is a quiet killer that gets less attention than more spectacularly destructive events.[11] Heat-related deaths are also arguably more preventable than fatalities resulting from other types of natural disasters, putting them on that tenuous line between natural disasters and human-induced tragedy. In addition, such fatalities underscore the fact that the poor are so often disproportionately affected by heat waves and other natural disasters. Simply having air conditioning, living on higher ground, or having better housing during a flood can mean the difference between life and death.[12]

Like other catastrophes, maritime disasters often bring into question the extent to which a calamity is the result of human folly or an “act of God.” Such was the deadliest single disaster in the history of the Milwaukee area, the sinking of the Lady Elgin, during which nearly three hundred lives were lost. The wreck occurred on September 8, 1860, during a severe storm, though investigators later concluded that human negligence played a significant role in the wreck. The ship departed Chicago on the late evening of September 7, bound for Milwaukee with up to six hundred passengers, mostly Milwaukeeans of Irish descent who had travelled to Chicago on the same steamer the previous day to attend a speech by Democratic political candidate Stephen Douglas. Survivors reported that the Lady Elgin’s captain, Jack Wilson, feared bad weather, but passengers wishing to get back to Milwaukee sooner persuaded him to depart. Heavy rain, a strong Northeast wind, and large waves battered the ship as it headed north. At 2:30 a.m. a southbound schooner, the Augusta, struck the Lady Elgin, tearing a hole below the water line. Although the crew tried to lighten the ship and shift its weight to the opposite side (sources disagree on how many cattle were thrown overboard—fifty or 150) and asked all passengers to shift to the undamaged starboard side of the ship, the Lady Elgin sank within thirty minutes, with at least 298 lives lost. Although rough weather was clearly a factor in the disaster, subsequent investigations found that the second mate of the Augusta saw the Lady Elgin’s lights up to 45 minutes before the impact but failed to notify the captain of the Elgin’s presence until a collision was inevitable. The Elgin’s certificate of inspection permitted her to carry three hundred passengers, while there were possibly double that number on board. A survivor reported that the four hundred life preservers were “stowed in such a way that they could not be reached,” and the ship only had four lifeboats. Pumps, lights, buckets, and other equipment were in working order, but a jury concluded in October 1860 that had the ship been built with water-tight bulkheads, the disaster would not have occurred. Still, nature did play its part. According to the jury, “the boat rolling heavily caused the collision to be much more serious then [sic] it would have been in ordinary weather and a smoother sea.”[13]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Historian Ted Steinberg forwarded a similar thesis regarding natural disasters in general and about Hurricane Katrina in particular in the second edition of his book Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  2. ^10 Cities Most Immune to Natural Disasters,” June 23, 2011, The SPPI Blog, last accessed August 23, 2018. There is a general consensus that Syracuse, New York is the most disaster-proof city in the United States.
  3. ^ “Dishes Fall, Offices Hushed in Moment’s Tremor Here,” Milwaukee Journal, May 7, 1947; “Earthquake Shakes Illinois, Indiana Border,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 10, 2017.
  4. ^ William Ashworth, The Late Great Lakes: An Environmental History (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 27.
  5. ^1947, The Blizzard That Stopped Milwaukee Cold,” Milwaukee Public Library website, January 2017, accessed July 13, 2018; Donald Neuman When the Trolleys Were Stopped Cold: The Great Snowstorm of 1947 (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Library, 1983), 4-10; Harold J. McKeene, “Milwaukee Snow Blitzed!” Roads and Streets (May 1947), 74-76; “Blizzard of 1881,” Wisconsin Historical Society website, accessed September 9, 2017.
  6. ^ U.S Tornado Climatology, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration website, accessed July 14, 2018.
  7. ^ Worst Tornadoes, Tornado Project website, accessed October 16, 2016; “West Bend Surveys Its Damage: Food, Clothing Pour in as Victims Dig Out from Tornado’s Fury,” Milwaukee Journal, April 5, 1981; “A Peaceful Setting Left in Ruins,” Milwaukee Journal, April 28, 1984.
  8. ^ Tornadoes in Wisconsin, Tornado History Project website accessed October 16, 2016; Martha Bergland and Paul Hayes, Studying Wisconsin: The Life of Increase Lapham, Early Chronicler of Plants, Rocks, Rivers, Mounds and All Things Wisconsin (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2014), 301-302; “Tornado Leaves Milwaukee Weather Myth in Tatters,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 10, 2000.
  9. ^ Climate Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S Climate Data website, accessed July 19, 2018; Milwaukee Sentinel, August 22, 1850; Waukesha County Democrat, June 3, 1858.
  10. ^ “Hope Seen as Ice Moves,” Milwaukee Journal, April 3, 1959; “Body Found in Underpass as Flood Recedes in Tosa,” Milwaukee Journal, July 19, 1964.
  11. ^ Mare G. Weisskopf, et al., “Heat Wave Morbidity and Mortality, Milwaukee, Wis. 1999 vs. 1995: An Improved Response?” American Journal of Public Health  92, no. 5 (May 2002): 830-833; July 12-15, 1995 Deadly Heat Wave, National Weather Service website, accessed July 19, 2018; Centers for Disease Control, “Heat-Wave-Related Mortality—Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 1995,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 45, no. 24 (1996): 505-507; “Heat Death Toll Mounts,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 16, 1995; “Milwaukee’s Heat Toll Proportional to Chicago’s Number,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 19, 1995. The highest temperature recorded in the area during the heat wave was at Carroll College in Waukesha, where the high temperature at 5:30 p.m. was recorded at 109 degrees. From 1979 through 1997 an average of 371 Americans per year died from excessive heat, more than the number dying as a result of earthquakes, lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods combined.
  12. ^ For a discussion of the how the heat wave adversely affected the poor and elderly, see “Is ‘Safety Net’ Intact?,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 17, 1995.
  13. ^ Lady Elgin Disaster, Great Lakes Marine Collection, Milwaukee Public Library, Milwaukee; Ballard C. Campbell, Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History: A Reference Guide to the Nation’s Most Catastrophic Events (New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2008).

For Further Reading

Larson, Erik. Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1999.

Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Williams, Geoff. Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America’s Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever. New York, NY: Pegasus Books, 2013.

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