Studying Strange Disasters – The Boston Molasses Flood

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Aftermath of the Boston Molasses Flood.  Source: Boston Public Library

Anyone who has been in the trade of emergency management will likely tell you to always expect the unexpected.  No two disasters are ever the same.  While we can predict similarities from one flood, fire, or hurricane to another, there are always different impacts, needs, and circumstances which often give us cause to consider different means and methods in our response.  Some disasters are noted for specific uniquenesses in their impacts, needs, or circumstances which tend to be a theme of sorts for that disaster.  Every once in a while, however, a disaster occurs which was largely unexpected.

99 years ago this month, the City of Boston encountered one of those unexpected disasters when a flood of over two million gallons of molasses rushed through several blocks of Boson’s North End, killing 21 people and several horses, injuring 150 people, and destroying numerous buildings.  The molasses took weeks to clean and the cause and origin investigation took years, with a final ruling against the company which owned the massive storage tank being found liable.

While I had originally intended to write more about the incident in-depth, I think it most prudent to steer readers toward some of the sources I had looked at, as the information is quite interesting.

While an incident like this seems so unlikely as to never occur again, never say never.  In 2013 over 200,000 gallons of molasses was spilled into Honolulu Harbor.  While no people were killed or buildings destroyed from this pipe leak, the fish kill in the harbor was massive.

And yes, even a beer spill can be hazardous.  In 1814 several tanks containing over 300,000 gallons of beer ruptured in London.  The tidal wave of ale damaged and destroyed several structures and killed 8 people, aged 3 to 63.

We often think about hazardous materials as only being volatile chemicals which can ignite or cause harmful, noxious fumes.  We must consider that any substance in sufficient quantity introduced into a space where it’s not supposed to be can be extremely hazardous, both to people and the environment.  A flood is the most fundamental of these… I don’t think we need to detail the threat and impacts from flood waters.  But as you assess hazards in your community, consider that bulk storage of things like milk, grains, or other materials, which we often don’t consider hazardous, can cause great impact should they be unleashed on people, infrastructure, and the environment.  While our safety regulations (a mitigation measure) are certainly stronger than those which were in place in the 1800s and early 1900s, the hazards still exist.  Be smart and don’t dismiss those hazards outright.

What out of the ordinary hazards concern you?

© 2018 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC SM

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