Fascinating article: Theodore Steinberg's "What is a Natural Disaster?" Definitely worth reading, if only because it's interesting.
Here's my preliminary idea for the course (which I'm thinking to design as either a 101 class (Rhetoric as Reading) or 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry)):
"This course is designed around a theme of natural disaster narratives and their place in literature. What function does the natural world serve in the written word? How does it affect the subject of a piece of written work (in whatever genre)? How do humans find meaning in natural disasters--and how has that (or has it?) changed over time? (Natural disasters used as morality tales, for instance.) How does it affect the peripherals of a piece of writing? (Frankenstein would not have been written if not for the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.) Our purpose in this class is to develop a greater understanding of the natural world and its effects not only on as as human beings right now, but also how the events of the natural world have affected literature throughout its history.
My idea right now is to structure the class chronologically in units of time: Ancient Literature; Renaissance/Medieval Literature; Enlightenment/Industrialization; Age of Technology. That way, we can trace how natural disasters are represented in literature and how that changes (if it does).
And so my goal right now is to make a master list of writings of natural disasters, both literature (canon and contemporary) and journalistic explorations. If you've got suggestions, please post them! If you have experience teaching these books, I'd like to hear it!
Agee, Jonis. The River Wife. (New Madrid earthquakes.)
Egan, Timothy. Worst Hard Time (Dust Bowl)
Epic of Gilgamesh/Biblical Flood.
Fagan, Brian. The Little Ice Age.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. (tides/cyclone)
Laskin, David. The Children's Blizzard. (1888 Midwestern Blizzard)
MacLean, Norman. Young Men and Fire. (1949 Mann Gulch Fire)
O'Flaherty, Liam. Famine. (Irish Great Famine)
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. (1815 Mt. Tambora)
Solnit, Rebecca. Paradise Built in Hell. (New Orleans/Katrina)
Varley, Jane. Flood Stage and Rising. (1997 Red River Flood)
Suggestion from my mother: "The ideas brought to mind "The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894." I have no idea of literary accounts to recommend, but I remember studying about it in 6th grade, when Minnesota history was our social studies curriculum. Whether the fire was started by lightning or sparks from a passing train, no one will ever know, but the damage was catastrophic." Sounds like the beginnings to a major writing project for this class: find and research a local natural disaster. Thanks, Mom!