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What Were the Worst Hurricanes in U.S. History?
It is the television event of the year—and no, we are not talking about the second coming of Friends. We’re talking about the live coverage provided by the Weather Channel during hurricane season.
A team of brave reporters that typically includes Jim Cantore and Mike Seidel braves the elements to give us a firsthand look into the devastation caused by tropical systems that morph into the beasts that we call hurricanes.
Whether a hurricane forms near the entrance into the Gulf of Mexico or near the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa, the storm has the potential to wreak havoc from Martha’s Vineyard to Brownsville, Texas. The United States has seen its fair share of destructive hurricanes that date back as far as the earliest recorded event.
What were the worst hurricanes in the US? We have compiled a list of the 15 worst hurricanes to make landfall in the United States. Of the 15 worst hurricanes, what was the worst hurricane in history?
What are the Dangers of a Hurricane?
The breathtaking views from space of hurricanes hide the incredible danger that these storms churn up in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. Five weather factors pose the greatest dangers of a hurricane.
- Storm surge
- Inland flooding
- High winds
- Rip currents
Hurricanes are super-intense low-pressure systems that churn up a tremendous amount of water. The water brought to the surface has to go someplace, and that someplace is the streets, basements, alleyways, businesses, and park garages of some of the largest cities in the United States. In fact, the worst hurricane in American history had a storm surge that almost wiped an entire city off the map.
A hurricane’s storm surge is capable of producing more structural damage and taking more lives than the other four factors on this list. Storm surge is the primary reason why the National Hurricane Center in Miami issues hurricane watches and warnings. Powerful winds push coastal water inland with enough force to kill or injure anyone in its path.
According to the National Weather Service (NWS,) storm surge can exceed 20 feet tall and travel several miles inland.
Hurricanes, especially ones that move slowly or do not move at all, generate torrential rains that have nowhere to go. Hurricane Harvey, which stalled over Houston, Texas in August of 2017, produced nearly 50 inches of rain within just a few days. Some parts of the city remain desolate because of the water wrath left behind by Harvey.
Cities along the coast that have poor drainage systems are particularly vulnerable to inland flooding. Although not as deadly as storm surge, inland flooding can still cause serious property damage. A vast majority of the deaths attributed to inland flooding occur because of walking or driving into high water.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale defines the strength of a hurricane based on the speed of the winds near the eye of the storm. For example, a category one hurricane produces winds that average between 74 and 95 miles per hour. Hurricane-force winds can cause considerable damage to property, as well as to the people that get in the way of falling debris.
Although surface winds decrease in power as a hurricane moves over land, the winds are still strong enough to create life-threatening weather conditions. Just a wind gust of 74 miles per hour can destroy buildings and mobile homes. In areas that receive substantial rainfall, the soft ground makes it easier for strong winds to topple trees and transform debris like shingles into deadly projectiles.
Hurricanes do not have to make landfall to wreak havoc on a coastal city. Many of the worst hurricanes in the US produced deadly rip currents while the storms churned up water hundreds of miles offshore. A city located dozens of miles away from the site of a hurricane making landfall can experience life-threatening rip currents.
When you watch The Weather Channel for coverage of a hurricane, you can expect to notice several watches and warnings posted on the screen. One frequent watch and warning concerns rip currents. According to the National Hurricane Center, ocean water that flows away from the shore can carry the most accomplished swimmer out to sea.
The National Weather Service states that around 20 percent of all tornadoes that touch ground in the United States result from the intense low pressures generated by hurricanes. Although relatively weak compared to their Tornado Alley counterparts, hurricane-spawned tornadoes present the element of surprise even when meteorologists detect them on radar. This is because tornadoes produced by hurricanes get rain-wrapped, which makes them difficult to see from the ground.
Tornadoes typically form in the front right quadrant of a hurricane.
What Was the Worst Hurricane in History?
What defines the worst hurricanes in the United States? The answer is a combination of the loss of life and the value of the property damage. Some hurricanes such as Harvey wreaked havoc with storm surge and inland flooding, while other storms like Andrew did most of its damage through tornadoes and high winds.
We ranked the following 12 storms as the worst hurricanes in the US. Some of the hurricanes do not have names because the National Weather Service had yet to operate as a hurricane warning center.
#12: Hurricane Charley (2004)
Hurricane Charley epitomizes the meaning of unpredictability when it comes to forecasting hurricanes. Initially forecasted to barrel into the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg metro area, the storm made a sudden right turn to tear through Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Hurricane Charley then sped up to produce 80 miles an hour winds as far inland as Orlando. After departing on the Atlantic Ocean side of Florida, Charley left behind more than $20 billion in property damage.
#11: The 1938 Hurricane
New England bore the brunt of the 1938 hurricane, as wind speeds exceeding 180 miles per hour destroyed more than 150 houses in Westhampton, New York. Storm surge of 14 feet engulfed the south coast of Long Island, killing hundreds of people. It is considered the deadliest and costliest hurricane in New England’s history.
#10: Superstorm Sandy (2012)
As a sprawling monster that negatively impacted 24 states, Superstorm Sandy is the second costliest tropical storm in US history. Estimated damages of more than $50 billion combined with power cut off to nearly nine million residents put Sandy in our list of the worst hurricanes in the US. The storm’s swath was so large that it helped fuel a winter storm that approached the Great Lakes from the west.
#9: Hurricane Irma (2017)
As a hurricane that remained intact for almost two weeks, Irma did a number on islands in the Caribbean before unleashing its fury in the Florida Keys and South Florida. Reaching wind speeds of more than 180 miles an hour, Irma caused $65 in property damage, making it the second-costliest Caribbean hurricane in history.
#8: Hurricane Michael (2018)
As the first Category 5 hurricane to pummel the United States in nearly 30 years, Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida. Wind speeds in excess of 160 miles per hour shredded homes and businesses located along the Florida Panhandle. Sixteen people died and the storm produced more than $25 billion in property damage.
#7: Hurricane Camille (1969)
Because of its record-breaking power, Hurricane Camille destroyed all the wind-measuring instruments set up in Galveston Bay. Camille came ashore compactly, churning up a storm surge of 24 feet. The incredible storm surge was the main reason why 259 people lost their lives. Camille’s path of destruction left behind $1.4 billion in property damage, which would have been considerably higher if the storm had grown in size before making landfall.
#6: Hurricane Andrew (1992)
If any hurricane on our list defines the term “close call,” it would be Andrew. Projected to devastate the coast along the Miami shoreline, the Category 3 storm went south of the city to level Homestead and Elliot Key. The relatively small hurricane destroyed nearly 130,000 homes because of wind speeds that topped 160 miles per hour. After moving into the Gulf of Mexico, Andrew flattened dozens of oil platforms before coming ashore along the Louisiana coast.
#5: The 1926 Hurricane
The tragedy of this storm is that the tragedy could have been prevented with the use of modern weather detection equipment. Residents of Miami left their homes thinking the storm was over. However, a 10 foot-storm surge that came in from Lake Okeechobee killed around 2,500 people. The 105 million in property damage translates into a cost of more than $1 trillion in today's currency.
#4: Hurricane Harvey (2017)
Zigging and zagging off the Gulf Coast of southern Texas, Hurricane Harvey displaced more than 30,000 residents living in the Houston Metro area. The barrage of heavy rain overwhelmed sewer systems and destroyed bridges that succumbed to raging streams and rivers. At $125 billion, Harvey generated as much property damages as Hurricane Katrina.
#3: 1900 Hurricane
More than 8,000 residents and tourists along the Galveston coast lost their lives because of the 1900 hurricane. A storm surge of 20 feet and wind speeds exceeding 120 miles an hour demolished Galveston’s infrastructure. Because of the lack of weather detection equipment, most of the tourists and residents were taken by surprise when the hurricane made landfall.
#2: Hurricane Katrina (2005)
An estimated storm surge of 25 feet in Mississippi was one of the contributing factors that made Katrina one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history. More than 1,800 people lost their lives because of the storm surge and a famously compromised levy system that caused deadly flooding over 80 percent of New Orleans. The property damage bill for Hurricane Katrina exceeded $100 billion
#1: Hurricane Maria (2017)
With maximum sustained winds over 175 miles per hour, Hurricane Maria blasted Puerto Rico to claim more than 3,000 lives and generate nearly $100 billion in property damage. It remains the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. As of 2021, residents of the island continue to recover from the once-in-a-lifetime hurricane.