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Primary Source Set Natural Disasters

The resources in this primary source set are intended for classroom use. If your use will be beyond a single classroom, please review the copyright and fair use guidelines.

Teacher’s Guide

To help your students analyze these primary sources, get a graphic organizer and guides: Analysis Tool and Guides


There are many types of natural disasters: floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes…the list goes on. Primary sources in the online collections of the Library of Congress document historic natural disasters before, during, and after the events themselves, and even include plans to mitigate potential disasters in the future.

The center of the United States is known for being Tornado Alley, attracting storm chasers to the Great Plains to observe the harrowing twisters. California and parts of the Oregon coast have increasingly been hot spots for forest fires. The Southwest has been known to have consistent drought spells, just as the Northeast has had frequent cold fronts. The unique topography and biogeography of each region leads to interesting weather trends, and often natural disasters.

Depending on where you live, you are more likely to be familiar with certain types of natural disasters than others. Whatever your location in the world, there remains a fascination with understanding the wrath of nature and the impacts of natural disasters on communities.

Many natural disasters have shaped U.S. history and have left lasting traces in the nation’s memory and culture. A few include:

  • The Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 destroyed more than 10,000 buildings and displaced nearly 100,000 people from their homes.
  • The Johnstown Flood of 1889 occurred after a massive rainstorm caused a dam above the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania to collapse, releasing flood waters that devastated the town.
  • The Galveston Hurricane was the deadliest known weather event of its time, killing more than 8,000 people on September 8, 1900 in Galveston, Texas.
  • The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was especially destructive. Not only did the 7.9 magnitude earthquake level buildings across the city, but its many aftershocks also led to fires that took days to put out.
  • The Dust Bowl era was a period of severe drought and dust storms in the southwestern Great Plains during the 1930s that ruined countless farms and drove thousands of people to leave the region.

Suggestions for Teachers

Select pairs of primary sources representing disasters caused by similar weather events, such as a hurricane and a tornado. Ask students to make observations about the similarities and differences between two primary sources and make predictions about what natural disasters occurred and what might have caused these different weather patterns.

Ask students to work in pairs or small groups to compare newspaper reports of a natural disaster from the time when it occurred with a more recent description of the event. Consider how each describes causes and effects: How does each item reflect the science behind the event? What has changed between the reports?

There is debate in the scientific community about whether a human-created disaster should be considered a natural disaster. For example, would you and your students consider the incident with the Titanic to be a natural disaster? Working in small groups, ask students to explore multiple items from the set and write a definition of a natural disaster.

What would it have been like to live through one of the natural disasters of the nation’s past? Ask students to choose a specific primary source and develop a short story, skit, or narrative graphic that could bring the disaster to life, particularly from the perspective of someone who might have experienced the disaster. Students could also conduct research in their own region to learn more about the particular natural disasters that have affected their hometowns.

Additional Resources