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Fact Check: most deadly days in US history

We fact check a meme for accuracy and find that it leaves a number of terrible events out of history.

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A graphic that has been making the rounds on the Internet provides a list of the eight deadliest days in United States history. How accurate is that list, and what is the reality?

How accurate is this meme? Not very.

We pulled meteorological, military, and disaster records for a list of fatalities on US soil, including US territories. We reviewed data from The COVID tracking project provided by The Atlantic. Our conclusion? The graphic isn’t accurate based on available data.

The graphic gets the first one right with the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, the deadliest single day tragedy in United States history. The battle of Antietam is more complicated. If you count both Union and Confederate deaths, it is the second on the list. If you count Union forces only, it falls out of the top ten, with 2600 fatalities. The numbers fall apart after that. The San Francisco Earthquake, the San Ciriaco Hurricane, Hurricane Maria, and the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane are all left off. Although you could argue that almost all of the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria and the San Ciriaco Hurricane of 1899 deaths were in Puerto Rico, they are Americans. In 1899 Puerto Rico was occupied by the United State military after the island was invaded, and the horrors of Hurricane Maria are well documented.

As for the COVID numbers, the variations in daily death counts occur because each state reports its data differently and at different times. Aggregating this data by various sources uses different methodologies, creating the daily variances from the other sources.

So what is the correct list

  1. 1900 Galveston Hurricane – 6,000 to 12,000 (estimated)
  2. 1899 San Ciriaco Hurricane – 3,389
  3. 1906 San Francisco Earthquake – 3,000 (estimated)
  4. 2001 9/11 Terrorist Attacks – 2,996 (all locations)
  5. 2017 Hurricane Maria – 2,982
  6. 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane – 2,823
  7. 2020 May 20, COVID-19 – 2,752
  8. 2020 December 2, COVID-19 – 2,733
  9. 2020 December 3, COVID-19 – 2,706
  10. 2020 April 29, COVID-19 – 2,685

There are several multiday historical events, particularly during the Civil War such as the Battle of Gettysburg that produced a total fatality count that was higher. However, this wasn’t on a single day, and when daily fatalities of these battles are considered, the incidents don’t crack the top ten.

The sharing of factual data for COVID is critical to not fuel misinformation and further erode trust in the data. Finally, without accurate records for daily deaths attributed to the 1918 Flu Pandemic, it is difficult to determine if any single day would move into this chart.

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