Submerged cars in flood after Hurricane Ida.
Sarah J Lee/istockphoto

The Deadliest Hurricanes and Other Natural Disasters in the U.S.

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Submerged cars in flood after Hurricane Ida.
Sarah J Lee/istockphoto

Ruin Nation

From deadly wildfires and heat waves to hurricanes, all forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes, natural disasters seem to be on the upswing — with more to come. Hurricane Ian is barreling down on Florida, with an expected 10 feet of storm surge and winds well over 100 mph. Predictions of such potential catastrophes are a reminder of the power of nature and the havoc storms and other natural disasters have caused throughout U.S. history.


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The Great Flood of 1937
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Ohio River Flood

Year: 1937
Fatalities: 350

The worst flooding Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois residents had seen in 175 years in the Ohio River Valley was triggered by record-breaking rains — 14 inches in Cincinnati, nearly 15 inches in Evansville, Indiana, and almost 20 inches in Louisville, Kentucky. It resulted in floodwaters reaching almost 80 feet in Cincinnati and submerging 70% of Louisville. As floodwaters rose, gas tanks exploded in some places and oil fires broke out in others. Some places in Cincinnati remained underwater for up to 19 days, and countless numbers lost their homes.


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Blizzard of 1888, Park Place in Brooklyn NY. March 14, 1888.
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Great Blizzard of 1888

Year: 1888
Fatalities: 400

This March 11 storm brought New York City to a halt by dropping as much as 55 inches of snow in some locations, with wind gusts of up to 85 mph. The drifts of snow left behind by the storm were so massive they reached as high as the second story of some buildings and blocked entrances to train stations, while as many as 15,000 commuters found themselves stranded on elevated trains. About a quarter of the U.S. population lived between Washington, D.C., and Maine at the time, and plenty of other cities in the region were hit with their own record snowfalls from the blizzard: In Keene, New Hampshire, 36 inches of snow was recorded, while New Haven, Connecticut, got 45. Boats sank from the wind and waves, and wild animals and farm animals froze to death.

Moose Lake and Cloquet Wildfires, Minnesota
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Moose Lake and Cloquet Wildfires, Minnesota

Year: 1918
Fatalities: About 1,000
The trigger for this natural disaster was a parched landscape and dry gusty winds, combined with a spark from a passing train. The result: The worst wildfire outbreak in Minnesota history. The fire began Oct. 10, smoldering for a few days during the area’s worst dry spell in 48 years. When winds intensified, so did the fire. (At their strongest, winds reached 76 mph.) The fire rapidly consumed the small town of Brookston and moved on to Duluth. Before it was over, 38 communities were destroyed. In addition to the many deaths, there was more than $1 billion in damage. 

Heatwave
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Heatwave

Year: 1980
Fatalities: 1,260

With temperatures soaring these days from climate change, the 113-degree peak seen in the heatwave of 1980 may not seem quite as extreme as it once did. Still, it was one of the deadliest weather events in U.S. history, groaning on from mid-July through mid-September across central and eastern United States. Many states suffered through weeks of record-breaking heat; Memphis, Tennessee, recorded a 15-day stretch of temperatures above 100 degrees. The toll wasn't only counted in deaths: Agricultural losses totaled some $60 billion adjusted for inflation.

The Okeechobee Hurricane
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The Okeechobee Hurricane

Year: 1928
Fatalities: 1,770 to 2,300

Though many coastal residents were well prepared for this hurricane’s arrival, the residents of Lake Okeechobee, a community some 40 miles inland from Palm Beach, were caught off guard. The rain arriving with the hurricane’s brutal 125 mph winds was too much for the lake to handle, and its dikes crumbled. Water flooded surrounding farmland and homes, sweeping people away. Despite significant search efforts, not all the bodies were recovered, while many that were found couldn't be identified.

Hurricane Katrina
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Hurricane Katrina

Year: 2005
Fatalities: About 1,836
Likely one of the best-known natural disasters on this list, Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 storm that included recorded winds of 100 to 140 mph. Katrina pounded some 400 miles of land with devastating impact. It also triggered levee breaches, resulting in massive flooding that displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Coast Guard rescued about 34,000 people just in New Orleans. Desperate residents also commandeered boats to save themselves and their neighbors. It’s estimated that the storm caused more than $100 billion in damage.


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Sea Islands Hurricane
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Sea Islands Hurricane

Year: 1893
Fatalities: About 2,000
The first effects of this storm began to be felt Aug. 25 on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the barrier islands off South Carolina. Two days later, the storm made landfall near Savannah, Georgia, bringing 120 mph winds and a storm surge so big it submerged the Sea Islands completely. The destruction left in this storm’s wake was massive: Nearly every building on the Sea Islands was damaged beyond repair and some 30,000 people were suddenly homeless. The Red Cross didn’t get to the disaster areas for more than one month, and in the end, it took a 10-month relief effort to restore the Sea Islands, where damage was estimated at $22.8 million.


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Cheniere Caminada Hurricane
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Cheniere Caminada Hurricane

Year: 1893
Fatalities: More than 2,000
This powerful, Category 4 hurricane barreled into town Oct. 2 with winds of more than 100 mph (some estimates put the winds at closer to 133 mph). About half of the 1,200 people living in the small Gulf Coast community died, and the town was all but wiped out by waters surging nearly 18 feet. Just one house was left standing. There were also hundreds of other deaths in surrounding areas along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi, and an estimated $5 million in damage — close to $136 million, adjusted for inflation.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake
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San Francisco Earthquake

Year: 1906
Fatalities: More than 3,000

This record-breaking earthquake from a rupture of the northernmost 296 miles of the San Andreas fault began with a foreshock at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, followed some 20 seconds later by a legendarily violent earthquake lasting as long as a minute. The impact was felt from southern Oregon down to Los Angeles, and inland as far as central Nevada. As awful as the earthquake itself was, it also triggered fires in San Francisco that lasted for three days and destroyed almost 500 city blocks. Between the earthquake and fires, thousands of people were killed and half of San Francisco’s population of 400,000 was left homeless.

San Ciriaco Hurricane, Puerto Rico
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San Ciriaco Hurricane, Puerto Rico

Year: 1899
Fatalities: 3,400
This hurricane, making landfall Aug. 8, was one of the most devastating in Puerto Rican history, bringing 28 straight days of rain and winds as high as 100 mph. In the hurricane’s wake, among those who lived were thousands who found themselves without shelter, food, or work. The hurricane also caused massive damage to the island’s farmlands, including many coffee plantations.

Hurricane Maria
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Hurricane Maria

Year: 2017
Fatalities: About 4,600

As the first Category 4 hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, Maria and its 155 mph winds left nearly the entire population of 3.4 million without electricity. It ripped wooden and tin roofs off homes, and left many people with limited access to clean water and food. Studies found that the Sept. 20 hurricane and its aftermath killed thousands and demanded a yearslong recovery.

Galveston Hurricane
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Galveston Hurricane

Year: 1900
Fatalities: 6,000 to 12,000
The deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history took place 120 years ago in Galveston, Texas. On Sept. 8, a Category 4 hurricane pounded Galveston with winds of more than 135 mph and storm surges up to 15 feet, destroying more than 3,600 buildings. The disaster was exacerbated by the lack of sophisticated weather forecasting technology at the time — but warnings about the impending storm were issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau, including calls for people to move to higher ground, only to be largely ignored by vacationers and residents.