By the end of the year, aid workers in East Asia were still calculating the damage from a triple calamity that brought massive misery: a typhoon, a tsunami, and an earthquake that left thousands of people dead within two weeks in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Samoa. Typhoon-induced flooding left large swaths of the Philippine capital city of Manila underwater in late September, killing hundreds of people and leaving thousands homeless. A few days later, a second storm in the same region killed another 300 people and destroyed $128 million of crops. A few hundred miles south, more than 1,100 people died when a 7.6-magnitude earthquake rocked Indonesia. Relief workers said substandard construction contributed to the massive death and damage. And several thousand miles east, residents of the islands of Samoa reeled from a tsunami that left at least 200 people dead and sucked whole villages out to sea. Even so, Togiola Tulafono, a town governor in Tafuna, offered comfort to grieving islanders: "We can thank the Lord for the blessings we received through this catastrophe. Although there were many lives lost because of it, in retrospect, God has spared so many more."
For the 68,000 residents of L'Aquila, Italy, disaster was swift: A 6.3 magnitude earthquake in the early morning hours of April 6 left some 65,000 people displaced and nearly 300 people dead. Local officials said the quake destroyed more than two-thirds of the buildings in the 13th-century mountain town 60 miles east of Rome. It was the country's worst earthquake since a 1980 quake killed more than 2,500.
Historians also calculated the cultural damage: dozens of centuries-old basilicas and cathedrals, including the transept in a medieval basilica that hosted the coronation of Pope Celestine in 1294.
God spared thousands of lives in California, where an August wildfire scorched nearly 250 square miles of land in the Los Angeles area, making it the largest fire in the city's modern history. Two firefighters died battling the blaze that destroyed several dozen homes. Authorities opened a homicide investigation into those deaths after announcing that the massive blaze was manmade, and launched a search for the arsonist. A cadre of 5,244 firefighters combated 100-degree temperatures and rugged terrain to beat back the fire that burned out of control for over six weeks.
When a 5-year-old boy named Edgar fell ill in Mexico's eastern state of Veracruz in March, local doctors could hardly have imagined the international implications: The boy's illness would become the first confirmed case of swine flu in an outbreak that would lead the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a worldwide pandemic for the first time in more than four decades. Edgar reportedly recovered, but thousands of people didn't: By early December, WHO officials had confirmed 8,000 swine flu deaths worldwide and said the actual number was probably far higher. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported at least half of those deaths occurred in the United States, and another 22 million people had been infected with the virus officially called H1N1.
As CDC officials rushed to produce some 200 million doses of a new vaccine, hospitals reported a heavy influx of infected patients. But alarm waned by November, as officials said infection rates leveled off. Still, CDC director Thomas Frieden warned the virus could roar back this winter: "We are far from out of the woods."