The Great Hurricane of 1780
What Happens When Hurricanes and Cyclones Hit Land?

As hurricanes and cyclones build in strength, people focus on preparing coastal areas, and for good reason: 90 percent of hurricane- and cyclone-related fatalities occur when storm surge smashes into a coastline. Storm surge usually looms 6-10 feet (2-3 meters) above the high tide line [source: Tarbuck]. In extreme cases, the storm surge can be much higher: Hurricane Katrina's estimated storm surge towered 28 feet (8.5 meters) [source: Knabb]. Hurricanes and cyclones typically diminish in strength after they make landfall because they lose contact with their key source of power -- large amounts of warm water. However, hurricanes that "stall" near water can also become huge rain producers and sources of flooding.

The devastating death toll of the Great Hurricane of 1780 exceeds even that of Hurricane Mitch. An estimated 22,000 people perished between Oct. 10 and 16 in the eastern Caribbean, most of them in the Lesser Antilles, with the heaviest losses occurring on the islands of Martinique, St. Eustatius and Barbados [source: CDERA]. Beyond these casualties, it's estimated that thousands of French and British sailors perished when the intense weather plowed into their vessels [source: CDERA].

Although its exact strength remains unknown, anecdotal evidence leads modern researchers to conclude that the Great Hurricane was a Category 5 storm with winds in excess of 200 mph (320 kph). Some eyewitness accounts attest to the complete ruins of sturdy stone buildings and forts, to heavy cannons sent hurtling hundreds of feet and to trees having their bark ripped away.

We've made it this far, and we're entering the top three. Continue to the next page to read about how chains of events can amplify the destructive power of storms.