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 following spaghetti models and 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].
The following 10 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.
After traveling through the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey arrived in the United States as a Category 4 storm. It was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States in a decade, after 2005's Hurricane Wilma, and the arrival of Harvey coincided with its peak intensity: winds of 130 mph (215 kph). Coastal communities like Corpus Christi and Galveston were hard-hit, but the most striking damage hit 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. FEMA director Brock Long called Harvey "probably the worst disaster the state's seen" [source: The Washington Post].
More than 13,000 people required rescuing throughout Texas, and an overall 30,000 people from that state were displaced by floodwaters [source: Chicago Tribune]. 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 second-most expensive storm in U.S. history after Katrina [source: NOAA].
Harvey had claimed at least 82 lives in Texas [source: Moravec]. Officials say that number includes those who died as a direct result of the storm, drowning in flash floods or on roads.
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. The approximate damage impact was $65 billion [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].
Camille, a nasty storm that brought heavy flooding and 200-mph (320-kph) winds to the Gulf Coast and later Virginia, was one of only three Category 5 hurricanes to hit the Continental U.S. since 1900. (The others were Andrew in 1992, which helped change emergency preparedness policy, and the "Labor Day" Hurricane of 1935, which shows up later on this list.) 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].
1935 Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane
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 $161 billion is considered the costliest hurricane in U.S. history [source: NOAA] . 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].
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 that Irma had traveled. Maria reached landfall on the tiny island of Dominica on Sept. 18, 2017 with wind speeds of 175 mph (281 kph) . 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 mph or 249 kph and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain [source: National Weather Service].
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 Rico 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 [source: National Hurricane Center]. Even a year later, the island has still not recovered and hundreds of thousands of residents have moved to the U.S. mainland for good [source: Hernandez].
Galveston Hurricane of 1900
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 Great Hurricane of 1780
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.
Last editorial update on Sep 12, 2018 05:19:46 pm.
The fire under the tiny town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, has been burning since at least 1962 and, to this day, nobody knows how to put it out.
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.
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