I’m reading Disaster!: A History of Earthquakes, Floods, Plagues, and Other Catastrophes by John Withington, who also wrote about other disastrous things such as disasters specific to London. It is a couple of years old (and thus does not include the recent Japan earthquake and tsunami). This is more of a reference book than a sit-down-and-read-it book, and it lacks detailed presentation or critical analysis of sources, but if you want to know about a particular past major disaster or category of major disasters (volcanoes, floods, tsunamis, etc.) this is a good starting point. Reading just through the famous volcano disasters, for instance, one can get a good feel for the relationship between people’s experiences with volcanoes and an understanding of how these events play out and create the havoc they are responsible for. For example, recent research on the cause of death of Romans at Pombeii during the Plinean eruption of Vesuvius suggested that most of the victims found entombed in hardened volcanic effluence died by being cooked instantly as though tossed into an ultra-hot oven all at once. Reading in Withingon’s book about eye witness accounts several similar volcanoes (including Vesuvius), one would not be surprised about this at all. In Martinique, Mount Pelée totally destroyed the thriving cosmopolitan town of St. Pierre in 1902. Eye witness accounts attest to people watching the eruption from a nearby ship suddenly bursting into flames, with some individuals sizzling as they hit the surface of the sea into which they leapt to save themselves (unsuccessfully).
Another interesting theme that runs through the book is the relationship between leadership, or lack thereof, and the level of magnitude of the disaster’s impact on people, which reminds us of the difference between Katrina and Sandy. In the case of Mount Pelée, local officials had an interest in keeping everyone in town for an upcoming election, so the leadership assembled a commission of sycophants to “study” the volcano’s unrest and determine that it would not threaten the town. Almost every person who lived there was killed when the main eruption occurred, with the death toll being in the tens of thousands. Another theme is the vital importance of effective monitoring and planning for volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis.
This is a book without pictures so the Kindle edition is a good choice if you like eBooks. Also, note that the British edition has a slightly different title.