The hurricane battered the coast, causing the city to flood, and tens of thousands of people were stranded without food or water. When an event causes great suffering, we call it a cataclysm.

Cataclysm comes from the Greek word kataklysmos, which means "a deluge or flood." So saying something was “a disaster of cataclysmic proportions” is particularly apt when you're talking about a tsunami. Still, people use the word cataclysmic to describe non-watery disasters, too, like stock market crashes, painful breakups, and failed grammar tests.

Definitions of cataclysm

n a sudden violent change in the earth's surface

nuclear winter
a long period of darkness and extreme cold that scientists predict would follow a full-scale nuclear war; a layer of dust and smoke in the atmosphere would cover the earth and block the rays of the sun; most living organisms would perish
Type of:
geological phenomenon
a natural phenomenon involving the structure or composition of the earth

n an event resulting in great loss and misfortune

calamity, catastrophe, disaster, tragedy
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act of God, force majeure, inevitable accident, unavoidable casualty, vis major
a natural and unavoidable catastrophe that interrupts the expected course of events
a cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil
a severe shortage of food (as through crop failure) resulting in violent hunger and starvation and death
kiss of death
something that is ruinous
a disaster comparable to a nuclear meltdown
any large-scale calamity (especially when thought to be sent by God)
any disaster or catastrophe
tidal wave
an unusual (and often destructive) rise of water along the seashore caused by a storm or a combination of wind and high tide
a cataclysm resulting from a destructive sea wave caused by an earthquake or volcanic eruption
the Great Calamity, the Great Hunger, the Great Starvation, the Irish Famine
a famine in Ireland resulting from a potato blight; between 1846 and 1851 a million people starved to death and 1.6 million emigrated (most to America)
Type of:
bad luck, misfortune
unnecessary and unforeseen trouble resulting from an unfortunate event

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