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15 Worst Hurricanes of All Time

hurricane katrina, submerged houses
Aerial view of damage from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the worst hurricane in U.S. history. But not of all time. ©Smiley N. Pool/Dallas Morning News/Corbis

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 improvement stores 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 following spaghetti models and prepping for the big one in the Sunshine State and other coastal areas is that many have seen a 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.

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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.

The following hurricanes aren't necessarily the deadliest of all time, or the costliest. But they all sit at the intersection of property damage, powerful winds and human tragedy, and all captured the world's attention for differing reasons. We've listed them in order of lives lost.

hurricane Michael
Hurricane Michael decimated Mexico Beach along Florida's Panhandle. The hurricane was the strongest to hit the area in decades. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Hurricane Michael decimated the Florida Panhandle, particularly in the Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach and Cape San Blas, when it made landfall Oct. 10, 2018 as a Category 5. It was the strongest hurricane ever to hit that area and only the second Category 5 to make landfall on the Gulf Coast. Michael also was the first Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Hurricane Michael started as a typical weak October Caribbean tropical system. However, once the system moved over warm Gulf of Mexico waters, it rapidly intensified and became a major hurricane with sustained winds of 161 miles per hour (259 kilometers per hour). The catastrophic damage was caused from wind and storm surge, and spread inland into southwest Georgia.

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Michael caused 16 deaths in four states, including Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. Damage estimates from the Insurance Information Institute from Michael total between $9 and $12 billion.

Hurricane Andrew
Hurricane Andrew walloped southern Dade County, Florida, with sustained winds of 141 miles, and continued on to slam into Louisiana. NOAA

This powerful Category 5 hurricane walloped southern Dade County, 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" storm when it developed in the Atlantic Ocean. But by the time it hit the Bahamas, this first-named storm of the season sent winds whipping at more than 160 mph (257 kph).

When it made its way to Florida, Andrew demolished scores of homes, with its sustained winds of 141 miles per hour (227 kilometers per hour). A 17-foot (5.2-meter) storm surge turned low-lying streets into waterways. The storm also left drivers to fend for themselves for weeks, as roughly 9,500 traffic signs and signals were destroyed.

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With damage estimated at $27.3 billion (in 2017 dollars), Andrew was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history for more than a decade until Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005 and caused more damage in terms of insured losses.

One positive legacy from Andrew is 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.

All in all, Andrew was blamed for 61 deaths in Florida and the Caribbean. And the storm more than 125,000 homes and 160,000 people were left homeless.

Hurricane Dorian
Hurricane Dorian left little, if anything, recognizable in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island in Great Abaco, Bahamas. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian was the first major hurricane of the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season. It formed on Aug. 24, 2019 from a tropical wave in the Central Atlantic and gradually strengthened as it moved toward the Lesser Antilles when it became a hurricane Aug. 28. The storm rapidly intensified and quickly became a Category 4 hurricane. By Sept. 1, Dorian reached Category 5 intensity and was packing sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (297 kilometers per hour), and barreling straight for the Bahamas.

It made landfall as a Category 5 storm at Elbow Cay, Great Abaco, in the Bahamas, and a second landfall hours later on Grand Bahama Island. It was the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Bahamas. But Dorian wasn't done. It moved up the North Carolina coast, and made landfall for a third time, as a Category 1 at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where rain and devastating storm surge overwhelmed the Outer Banks.

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The official death toll from Dorian in the Bahamas is 74, though the Bahamas' former health minister told the country's Parliament that record-keeping on Hurricane Dorian's missing victims was botched so badly that he couldn't say for sure how many actually died. Damage estimates for the Bahamas alone were around $3.4 billion.

hurricane harvey flooded suburban houston homes
Residential neighborhoods near Interstate 10 in Houston, Texas, sit in floodwater on Aug. 29 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Marcus Yam/LA Times/Getty Images

After traveling through the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey arrived in the United States as a Category 4 storm. At the time it was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States in a decade, after 2005's Hurricane Wilma. The arrival of Harvey coincided with its peak intensity: winds of 130 miles per hour (215 kilometers per hour). Coastal communities in Texas like Corpus Christi and Galveston were hard-hit, but the most striking damage was in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country.

Flooding in Houston was severe, as Harvey remained over the area for days, dumping up to 50 inches (127 centimeters) of water in certain locations. That's the same amount of rainfall Houston usually sees in an entire year, all deposited in a four-day span, and the area's ecosystem and manmade environment were both overwhelmed. The storm also affected communities like Beaumont, Texas, where the entire city was cut off from fresh drinking water. Then-FEMA director Brock Long called Harvey "probably the worst disaster the state's seen."

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More than 13,000 people required rescuing throughout Texas, and an overall 30,000 people from that state were displaced by floodwaters. And while Texas was hardest-hit, the storm also affected communities in Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee and beyond. Damage estimates were around $121 billion, making it the fourth-most expensive hurricane in U.S. history.

Harvey claimed at least 82 lives in Texas. Officials say that number includes those who died as a direct result of the storm, drowning in flash floods or on roads.

hurricane hugo
When it made landfall in 1989, Hugo was the strongest storm to hit the East Coast since Hurricane Hazel in 1954. NOAA

Florida and the Gulf of Mexico coast often bear the brunt of hurricane traffic in the U.S., but the East Coast also sees its share of storm-related destruction. Take Hurricane Hugo. It was one of the worst storms to hit the Carolinas in decades when it made landfall in September 1989.

The massive storm was a Category 3 as it approached the East Coast from Puerto Rico with sustained winds clocking in at 135 miles per hour (217 kilometers per hour). But Hugo intensified to a Category 4 by the time it made landfall at Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. And because Hugo was so large — and was moving so fast (at nearly a 30 miles per hour [48 kilometers per hour]) — hurricane force winds reached inland areas that rarely see severe conditions.

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Hugo became the strongest storm to hit the East Coast since Hurricane Hazel in 1954, causing at least 86 deaths and upward of $10 billion in damages. The World Meteorological Organization retired the name, meaning there will never be another Hurricane Hugo.

hurricane sandy, damaged home
What's left of a destroyed home stands precariously in Union Beach, N.J. following the ravaging by Hurricane Sandy. ©Ken Cedeno/Corbis

After barreling through Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti, the huge, slow-moving Hurricane Sandy weakened to a post-tropical cyclone before making landfall in the U.S. 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.

Sandy destroyed or damaged about 650,000 homes in the Northeast U.S. and killed 117 people in the U.S. alone, as well as 69 others in Canada and the Caribbean. The approximate damage impact was $65 billion. 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.

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Hurricane Ivan
This is all that remains of several homes on Orange Beach in Alabama after Hurricane Ivan made a direct hit on the Gulf Coast town. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hurricane Ivan hit Gulf Shores, Alabama on Sept. 16, 2004 as a Category 3. But it still remains one of the country's most destructive. The storm devastated the coastlines of Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, and produced waves more than 50 feet (45 meters) high.

What made this Category 3 so destructive? It had a very long life for a hurricane, and it strengthened and weakened many times throughout that cycle — gaining Category 5 strength three times. One of those was as it passed by the western tip of Cuba on Sept. 13. It weakened to a Category 4 once it entered the Gulf of Mexico. On the morning of Sept. 16, Ivan made landfall at Gulf Shores as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (193 kilometers per hour) and a 14-foot (4.3-meter) storm surge. Despite rapidly weakening, it continued to produce tons of rain, and even spawned tornadoes across the Southeastern United States.

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The system made its way over Virginia Sept. 18, and then looped backed over southern Florida back into the Gulf of Mexico Sept. 21. The system reacquired the name Tropical Storm Ivan five days after its first U.S. landfall and eventually Ivan made its final landfall Sept. 23 in southwestern Louisiana.

Ivan was ultimately blamed for the death of 57 people in the United States and another 67 in Grenada, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cayman Islands and Barbados. Damage estimates were more than $27 billion (in 2017 dollars).

hurricane Camille, salvage home
Homeowners salvage what was left of their home after Hurricane Camille ripped through. ©Jim Sugar/Corbis

When Hurricane Camille hit in August 1969, it was a nasty storm that brought heavy flooding and 200-mile per hour (320-kilometer per hour) winds to the Gulf Coast and later Virginia. It also was one of only two Category 5 hurricanes to hit the Continental U.S. since 1900. (Since then two others have made landfall: Andrew in 1992 and Michael in 2018.) After forming near the Cayman Islands in August 1969, Camille first blew through Cuba as a Category 3 but intensified in the Gulf of Mexico making a beeline for Mississippi where it made landfall between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian Aug. 18. Exact wind speed at landfall is unknown, as weather instruments were destroyed, though estimates put suggest gusts were as high as 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). However, with 900 mb pressure at landfall, Camille still ranks as the second most intense hurricane to hit the continental U.S.

Winds as high as 100 miles per hour were clocked across much of Southern Mississippi, leading to wind damage far inland. A 24-foot (7-meter) storm surge also contributed to major devastation in Mississippi. Camille eventually weakened to a tropical storm as it moved up the East Coast and reached Virginia, but the storm continued to dump upward of 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain on the region, contributing to flash flooding and mudslides just 120 miles (193 kilometers) from the nation's capital. The storm resulted in 256 deaths and more than $1.4 billion in damage.

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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.

hurricane gilbert
Hurricane Gilbert blows some treetops on the island of Jamaica, which was completely covered by the storm. ©Carl & Ann Purcell/CORBIS

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.

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.

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labor day hurricane 1935
Rescue workers search the devastated grounds of the Florida Keys for more victims of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. ©Bettmann/CORBIS

This Category 5 storm, considered the strongest to hit the U.S. in the 20th century, brought 200-mile-per-hour (320-kilometers per hour) 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.

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.

dog, hurricane katrina
This dog rode out Hurricane Katrina on a piece of wood. ©Michael Ainsworth/Dallas Morning News/Corbis

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, 2005, Hurricane Katrina looked like a hurricane that was fizzling out, but it began rapidly strengthening to Category 5 levels over warm water in the Gulf of Mexico. By Aug. 28, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for New Orleans. As the 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 New Orleans was underwater.

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.

In all, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,833 lives and at $161 billion is considered the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. The Federal Emergency Management Agency called it "the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history."

Hurricane Katrina also displaced 400,000 people to areas like Houston and Atlanta. Many never returned. 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.

people waiting for gas after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico
People wait in line for gas as they deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage to most of its electrical, gas and water grids as well as agricultural destruction after Hurricane Maria passed through. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hurricane Maria was the second Category 5 hurricane of the 2017 season. Coming just two weeks after a brutal Irma, Maria was particularly devastating as it passed through some of the same areas Irma traveled. Maria reached landfall on the tiny island of Dominica on Sept. 18, 2017 with wind speeds of 175 miles per hour (281 kilometers per hour). It then moved on to Guadalupe, and the U.S. Virgin Islands before destroying the island of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. By then it had weakened to a Category 4, with winds of 155 miles per hour (249 kilometers per hour) dumping 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain.

The official death toll from Maria was put at 146 (64 in Puerto Rico, 65 in Dominica and the rest in other islands). However, people believed the real total was much higher. The Puerto Rican government finally revised the death toll to 2,975 in August 2018, almost a year after the disaster, after commissioning an independent investigation from George Washington University [source: Fink].

In addition, the damage costs were estimated to be at least $1.31 billion for Dominica and over $90 billion for Puerto Rico. Maria was the deadliest storm to hit Puerto Rico and the third-costliest storm to hit the U.S. after Katrina and Harvey. At one point 90 percent of Puerto Rico was without electricity, thanks to all the downed utility poles. Even several years later, the island has still not completely recovered and hundreds of thousands of residents have moved to the U.S. mainland for good.

1900 hurricane, twisted house
This home was twisted but remained standing after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. ©BuyEnlarge/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Hurricanes Katrina and Michael were both terrible, but neither were the worst storms to hit the Gulf Coast. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 killed an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people, 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 to the region, 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.

Galveston took some amazing steps to ensure the damage was not repeated. It built a 3.5 mile (5 kilometer) seawall (later extended to 10 miles [16 kilometers]) and raised the level of the entire city, in some places as much as 16 feet (5 meters).

cleanup, mudslide, honduras, hurricane mitch
The residents of Tegucigalpa, Honduras clean the streets of the capital after Hurricane Mitch unleashed deadly mudslides. ©Bernard Bisson/Sygma/Corbis

Hurricane Mitch might not have received as much attention as other storms in the U.S., 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, dumping 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.

Fort Saint-Louis, Martinique.
French troops are still stationed at Fort Saint-Louis in Fort-de-France, Martinique. This 17th-century fort actually survived the Great Hurricane of 1780. ©Philip Gould/CORBIS

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. One local observer wrote that the hurricane stripped bark off of trees, which has caused some to speculate the winds must have topped 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour). This massive storm is considered the deadliest hurricane of all time.

Originally Published: Oct 2, 2013

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