Today in History: March 11

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”—Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

Douglas Adams was born on this date in 1952.

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The costliest natural disaster in world history took place five years ago today. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami started with a magnitude 9.0 megathrust earthquake—the most powerful to ever hit Japan and the fourth most powerful in recorded history and one that shifted the entire planet on its axis by half a foot—followed by a tsunami that struck the Sendai area particularly hard (100 foot waves reached several miles inland) and flooded the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, which led to several nuclear meltdowns at that facility. The World Bank has estimated that the combined cost of these several events topped $235 billion. More than 15,000 individuals lost their lives in the quake-tsunami event.

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An Army cook at Fort Riley, Kansas, fell ill on March 4, 1918, and by noon on March 11, about 100 soldiers at that army camp were hospitalized with the flu. After a few more days, the number was several hundred. Also by this date in 1918, the flu was reported in patients in New York City.

What followed over the next 18 months was the deadliest pandemic yet seen on this planet, influenza or any other; almost every strain of flu that has been seen before or since kills infants and the elderly, but this strain was perverse and targeted healthy men and women in their 20s and 30s. With an infection rate as high as 50% in some places and a fatality rate between 10% to 20% of those infected, the “Spanish influenza” of 1918 killed people in every inhabited part of the planet. None escaped, no matter how remote. Between 3% to 6% of the global population, many of the victims healthy young adults, perished suddenly. It killed more people in a year than AIDS has killed in its entire history. Conservative estimates place the dead at 50 million; conservative assumptions are that the figure is much higher, approaching 100 million.

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Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto” premiered 165 years ago tonight at La Fenice in Venice.

 
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The first snowflakes of what became known as the Great Blizzard of 1888 or the Great White Hurricane began to fall on the East Coast of the United States on this date that year. For the next three days the snowstorm raged from Chesapeake Bay to Maine and north into Canada. Some parts of upstate New York and New Jersey received as much as 60 inches of snow. In many places, wind created drifts that topped a few dozen feet. It was one of the first weather events to affect modern life: railroads were shut down, above-ground telegraph, telephone, and electric lines were snapped by the weight of the snow; and the storm was well-documented and photographed. Just like March 2016, March 1888 had been unseasonably warm and the winter a mild one until March 11, 1888.

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Harmonica expert Sonny Terry died 30 years ago today.

 
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Ezra Jack Keats was born 100 years ago today. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was born 100 years ago today. Astor Piazzolla was born 95 years ago today.

 
Ralph Abernathy was born 90 years ago today. The late Antonin Scalia was born 80 years ago today. Dock Ellis was born on this date in 1945.

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Newlywed Rupert Murdoch is 85 today. Sam Donaldson is 82 today. Sandra Milo is 83 today. Bobby McFerrin is 66 today. Jerry Zucker is 66. Nina Hagen is 61 today. Elias Koteas is 55. Alex Kingston is 53. Johnny Knoxville is 45 today. Thora Birch is 34 today.

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