There is a ritual of sorts that goes on in Florida every year when folks get wind of the news that a big storm is a-brewing. Windows are boarded, boats are dry-docked and grocery stores and Home Depots are picked clean of anything that might come in handy in the unlikely event that a massive hurricane hits.
What keeps people going through the annual routine of prepping for the big one in the Sunshine State and other coastal areas is that many have seen a real live hurricane or two, and they know the kind of serious destruction these storms can cause. From an 18th-century hurricane that ravaged the Caribbean to the devastating blow issued by Sandy in 2012, history is replete with stories of the wreckage and ruin that come with a major storm.
By definition, a hurricane is a tropical storm with winds above 74 miles per hour (119 kilometers per hour). The systems occur all over the world. In the Western Atlantic and Eastern Pacific Oceans, they are called hurricanes. In the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, they are called cyclones and in the Western Pacific, they are called typhoons [source: Red Cross].
Read on for a look at the 10 worst hurricanes of all time, in order of lives lost.
This powerful Category 5 hurricane walloped South Florida, mainly the area south of Miami, in August 1992. Storm season started quietly that year with minimal activity -- even Andrew was originally considered a "weak" formation when it developed in the Atlantic Ocean -- but ended with a bang. By the time it hit the Bahamas, this first-named storm of the season sent winds whipping at more than 160 mph (257 kph) [sources: Allen, Huffington Post, Rappaport].
In Florida, Andrew demolished scores of homes, exposing what experts later determined was a flimsy and under-enforced housing inspection code. It turned low-lying streets into waterways and killed 15 people. The storm also left drivers to fend for themselves for weeks, as roughly 9,500 traffic signs and signals were destroyed [sources: Allen, Huffington Post, Rappaport].
With damage estimated at $26.5 billion, Andrew was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history for more than a decade. One positive legacy was that the South Florida building code was entirely revamped and now all new homes are required to have storm shutters or impact-resistant glass; roofs have enhanced nail requirements, too [source: Allen].
Florida and the Gulf of Mexico coast often bear the brunt of hurricane traffic in the U.S., but coastal dwellers to the north have also seen their share of storm-related destruction. Hurricane Hugo was one of the most fearsome storms to hit the Carolinas, causing 50 deaths and about $8 billion in damage in the U.S. and Caribbean [sources: The Weather Channel, Masters, National Weather Service].
The massive storm was classified as a Category 3 hurricane as it approached Charleston from Puerto Rico in late September 1989, but intensified to a Category 4 storm before making landfall at Sullivan's Island, S.C. With winds clocking in at 135 mph (217 kph), Hugo was the strongest storm to hit the east coast north of Florida since Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The storm also moved quickly -- at nearly a 30 mph (48 kph) clip -- causing significant damage in inland areas after passing north of Charleston [sources: The Weather Channel, Masters, National Weather Service].
After barreling through Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti, the huge, slow-moving storm weakened to a post-tropical cyclone before making U.S. landfall in October 2012. But it was strong enough to wreak havoc on New York City and the Jersey Shore. Storm surges of more than 13 feet (4 meters) left parts of lower Manhattan under water and residents across the borough without power for days. Meanwhile, parts of Staten Island and beaches in Queens were nearly wiped off the map [sources: Nussbaum, CNN].
Sandy destroyed or damaged about 650,000 homes in the Northeast region and killed 117 people in the U.S. alone, as well as 69 others in Canada and the Caribbean. At $65 billion and climbing, Hurricane Sandy was the second-most costly hurricane in U.S. history [sources: Nussbaum, CNN]. The hurricane is also referred to as "Superstorm Sandy" because as it approached New York it had the characteristics of a winter storm rather than a tropical one [source: Conklin].
Andrew is one of only three Category 5 hurricanes to hit the U.S. since 1900. Another was Camille, a nasty storm that brought heavy flooding and 200-mph (320-kph) winds to the Gulf Coast and later Virginia. After forming near the Cayman Islands in August 1969, the storm first blew through Cuba at a Category 3 level and later intensified on its way to Mississippi. It weakened to a tropical storm before it reached Virginia, but Camille continued to pour upward of 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain as well as flash flooding and mudslides on a region just 120 miles (193 kilometers) from the nation's capital. The storm resulted in 256 deaths and more than $1.4 billion in damage [source: National Weather Service].
Camille played an important role in hurricane tracking in that it spawned the creation of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which ranks storms from categories 1 to 5 based on wind speed. Category 1 hurricanes blow winds ranging from 74 to 95 miles (119 to 153 kilometers), while those in the Category 5 range feature wind speeds of more than 156 miles (251 kilometers) an hour. The system is designed to give residents in danger zones a better idea of what to expect from a brewing storm [source: University of Rhode Island].
There are many ways to measure a hurricane, whether wind speed and rain or lives lost and property damage caused. Then there's sheer size. With a 500 nautical mile (926 kilometer) diameter, Gilbert was one of the largest hurricanes ever observed in the Atlantic basin. The storm originated near the Cape Verde Islands on the west coast of Africa, the birthplace of some of the worst hurricanes in history, including Andrew.
After becoming a Category 5 storm in September 1988, Gilbert literally covered the entire island of Jamaica, damaging roughly 80 percent of the island's homes. The hurricane then moved on to the Cayman Islands and Mexico, among other areas, before weakening and crossing into Texas, manifesting itself in a series of tornadoes. The storm caused 318 deaths, including 200 people killed in flooding in Mexico and 28 who died when a Cuban freight ship was thrown into a shrimp boat. Gilbert-related damage topped out at about $5.5 billion [sources: The Daily Beast, History.com].
This Category 5 storm, considered the strongest to hit the U.S. in the 20th century, brought 200-mph (320-kph) winds and soaking rain to the upper and middle Florida Keys and killed approximately 400 people. More than half of the dead were World War I veterans who had been working on building a highway from Key West to Key Largo. Damage in the United States was estimated at $6 million [sources: USA Today, National Weather Service].
This storm is simply known as the "Labor Day Hurricane" because the practice of naming hurricanes didn't begin until 1953. (And the World Meteorological Organization gave storms only female handles until 1978.) The storm also struck well before advances in weather tracking technology, including the regular use of Doppler radar, that predict where a storm might end up, leaving residents largely in the dark as the hurricane approached. Many of the victims had waited anxiously for an evacuation train that never came – it was washed away from the tracks [sources: National Weather Service, USA Today, National Weather Service].
Hurricane Katrina is often referred to as a man-made, rather than natural, disaster by those who fault infrastructure problems for the decimation caused by this storm that ravaged New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast.
On Aug. 26, Katrina looked like a hurricane that was fizzling out, but it began rapidly strengthening to Category 5 levels over warm water in the Gulf. By Aug. 28, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for New Orleans. As the now-Category 3 hurricane reached the city, water topped over its systems of levees causing them to break and the streets to flood. Eventually, 80 percent of the city was underwater [sources: Drye, Brandt].
Katrina left residents who couldn't or chose not to evacuate stranded in their homes with waters rising around them. Forty percent of hurricane-related deaths were from drowning. Slow federal government reaction to the plight of those affected led to claims of incompetence and even deliberate disregard for poor and black people [sources: Treaster, CNN].
In all, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,833 lives and at $108 billion is considered the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. The Federal Emergency Management Agency calls it "the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history" [source: CNN].
Katrina also displaced 400,000 people to areas like Houston and Atlanta [source: Brandt]. Many never returned to New Orleans. An upgraded system of levees was completed in 2013, but officials are worried about the massive cost of maintaining them with a shrunken tax base [source: Schliefstein].
Katrina was terrible, but it's not the worst storm in the Gulf Coast. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 took an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 lives, mostly in Texas, in September 1900 and is considered the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.
The storm didn't become a hurricane until passing west of the Florida Keys where a sharp left turn sent it heading straight toward Galveston. That gave residents and local officials less than four days to prepare. The Category 4 storm brought 20-foot (6-meter) storm surges and flash flooding and even pounded Oklahoma and Kansas when it was done with Texas. More than 3,600 homes, as well as a number of structures believed to be "storm proof" were destroyed in the hurricane, whose damage totaled $30 million [sources: Ramos, The Weather Channel].
Galveston took some amazing steps to ensure the damage was not repeated. It built a 3.5 mile, or 5 kilometer, seawall (later extended to 10 miles or 16 kilometers) and raised the level of the entire city, in some places as much as 16 feet (5 meters) [source: Ramos].
Mitch might not have received as much attention in the U.S. as Sandy and Katrina, but the death and devastation this hurricane caused exceeded some of history's better-known storms. The slow-moving hurricane seemingly paused once it reached Honduras in October 1998, pouring up to 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain an hour for two days, causing mudslides and deadly flooding along the way.
With approximately 11,000 people dead (and thousands more missing), Mitch is the second-deadliest hurricane on record and the worst to hit the Western Hemisphere in more than 200 years. The storm caused more than $5 billion in damage in Honduras, where much of the country's infrastructure and crops were completely destroyed. Nicaragua was also devastated by Mitch, losing 2,000 people in one mudslide alone [sources: NCDC, History.com, USGS].
The United States as we know it was just a gleam in George Washington's eye when the Great Hurricane of 1780 blasted its way through the Caribbean, killing approximately 22,000 people. Among the dead were British and American soldiers who had been skirmishing in warships scattered throughout the region as part of the Revolutionary War.
While there isn't much data on record regarding the hurricane's speed or rainfall, what we do know is that the storm bombarded several Caribbean islands, including Barbados, Martinique and St. Lucia over six days in October [source: History.com]. One local observer wrote that the hurricane stripped bark off of trees, which has caused some to speculate the winds must have topped 200 mph (320 kph) [source: Depradine]. This massive storm is considered the deadliest hurricane of all time.
Wrangling Mother Nature has successfully saved many lives, even if, a few times, it's literally blown up in our faces. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Worst Hurricanes of all Time
I recommend a good near-miss. The great thing about the near-miss -- when a hurricane bears down on your city or town, only to die out before reaching land -- is that everything stops for a day or two. No school, no work, no nothing (except for a heavy dose of local media covering what could be the next big storm). Where do you think those hurricane drinks came from? I'm guessing it was a bunch of folks waiting out a storm in a bar somewhere in Florida.
- Allen, Greg. "Hurricane Andrew's Legacy: 'Like A Bomb' In Florida." NPR. Aug. 23, 2012. (Sept. 29, 2013) http://www.npr.org/2012/08/23/159613339/hurricane-andrews-legacy-like-a-bomb-in-florida
- Brandt, Nadja. "New Orleans Rolling in Cash Sees Rebirth: Real Estate." Bloomberg. Aug. 26, 2013. (Oct. 1, 2013) http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2013/09/bloomberg_news_looks_at_new_or.html
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- CNN. "Hurricane Sandy Fast Facts." July 13, 2013. (Sept. 29, 2013) http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/13/world/americas/hurricane-sandy-fast-facts/index.html
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