Seven of the Most Devastating Hurricanes In Modern History
Seven of the Most Devastating Hurricanes In Modern History

Seven of the Most Devastating Hurricanes In Modern History

Brian - October 16, 2016

Tropical cyclones, AKA hurricanes and typhoons, are the largest and most powerful storm systems on Earth. These massive storms can literally wipe out cities and even entire regions. In modern times efforts to strengthen buildings and to get citizens out of the way of approaching storms has helped reduce casualties. Yet, monetary costs have only increased as property has become more expensive and cities more dense. Even as our ability to protect people is increasing, economic damage can cripple cities and regions.

Tropical cyclones can occur in just about any large, warm ocean. The Pacific produces the most cyclones, but they also frequently form off of the coast of West Africa in the Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean. Only one hurricane is known to have formed in the South Atlantic, Hurricane Catarina. In the Atlantic cyclones are called hurricanes. In the Pacific and Asia they are frequently referred to as typhoons. Weaker cyclones are usually referred to as depressions or simply tropical storms.

No matter the name and birthplace, these storms can be large, deadly, and can cause massive and widespread destruction. That’s why we’re going to take a moment to look over the most destructive hurricanes in history. This can be thought of and measured in both economic terms and losses of life.

Seven of the Most Devastating Hurricanes In Modern History
Hurricane Katrina

1. Katrina- The Costliest

Hurricane Katrina goes down as the costliest hurricane in history, causing over $100 billion dollars worth of damage (in 2005 dollars). 1,836 people were also killed by the storm, making it one of the deadliest storms in the United States’ history, and the deadliest hurricane in America since the early 20th century.

Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, where much of the geography consists of low-lying marshes and bogs. In fact, parts of New Orleans, the biggest city in the region, are actually below sea level and protected by levees. When Hurricane Katrina struck, these levees were overpowered and as a result much of New Orleans was flooded.

Hurricane Katrina first struck South Florida as a rather weak category 1 hurricane. Then, in the Gulf of Mexico, the storm picked up strength and headed north. For a short time the hurricane strengthened to a Category 5 and the government in Louisiana urged citizens to flee or else take shelter. The storm weakened to a category 3 by the time in made impact in Louisiana, but its heavy rains caused widespread destruction none-the-less.

Hurricane Katrina’s awkward and hard to predict path was perhaps its deadliest attribute. By the time it became clear that the storm could hit New Orleans, it was too late for many to evacuate. Much of Louisiana sits below, at, or near sea level, so flooding was a huge risk.

When Hurricane Katrina did strike, some levees failed and were overwhelmed in and outside of New Orleans. As a result, flooding was widespread. Many homes were destroyed and lives were lost. Meanwhile, the state and federal government were slow to respond to the damage, and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) was caught flat-footed.

Much of New Orleans and the surrounding bayous were flooded. While most of the casualties occurred in Louisiana, over 200 people died in Mississippi. Further, casualties were recorded in Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, and even as far north as Ohio. Ultimately, the Federal government issued disaster declarations covering 230,000 kilometers, an area bigger than the entire country of Romania.

Seven of the Most Devastating Hurricanes In Modern History
Galveston Hurricane

3. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1990

When you see a name like “the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1990”, you know the storm earned it. The deadliest hurricane in United States history, the Galveston hurricane tore a wide swath of damage across the Caribbean, Florida, and finally Texas.

The worst damage came to the island of Galveston, just off of mainland Texas. At the time, Galveston was one of the largest and busiest ports in the United States, and a major hub of commerce. Most of the citizens of the island failed to evacuate, having heard conflicting weather reports and believing that they were safe.

At the time, the city of Galveston was only about 9 feet above sea level, and the hurricane brought with it a storm surge of 15 feet. Much of the island was quickly swept over and at least 3,700 homes were quickly destroyed. Thousands were killed, with many perishing during the initial landing.

Further, the bridges and rail lines leading to the island were destroyed or heavily damaged, impeding rescue and aid efforts. Telegraph lines were also severed, and only after a functioning boat was found was the city able to send messengers to the mainland to request aid.

In the days after the hurricane, thousands more people died due to a lack of treatment and vital supplies. In grad total, it’s estimated that as many as 12,000 people were killed. Further, the trajectory of the entire city of Galveston was irreversibly altered.

Besides the lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage (in today’s dollars), the hurricane essentially doused the “golden age” of the island. At the time, Galveston was becoming a hot area for investors and businesses. The massive destruction wrought by the hurricane, however, caused investors and businesses to flee, relocating to nearby Houston instead.

In an effort to protect the city from future tragedy, the entire city was actually raised by 17 feet and a massive sea wall was built. Regardless, Galveston never recovered its former glory, while Houston enjoyed a boon as businesses relocated.

Seven of the Most Devastating Hurricanes In Modern History
Pakistan surrenders

3. Bhola- The Typhoon That Started a War

The 1970 Bhola Cyclone that struck the Bay of Bengal on November 12th takes the cake as the deadliest tropical cyclone in history. This category 4 typhoon struck East Pakistan (now modern-day Bangladesh) and the West Bengal region of India on November 12th, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, and ultimately setting off a war.

It’s estimated that at least a half million people died because of the storm, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. In fact, nearly 50 percent of the population in the Tazumuddin region of Bangladesh was killed. The mean mortality rate throughout severely affected regions is believed to have been around 16.5%, with more than half of the deaths coming from children under 10.

At the time, modern-day Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. So-called East Pakistan was separated from West Pakistan by about 1,200 miles of Indian territory. Relations between Indian and Pakistan, meanwhile, had been poor since independence in 1947. At the same time, much of Pakistan’s resources and the seat of government were concentrated in West Pakistan. Many in East Pakistan felt like their region was treated as second class.

When the Bhola Cyclone struck East Pakistan was practically cut off from aid and resources. The Pakistani government tried to respond to the disaster, but the response was slow, clumsy, and frequently mishandled. Many people were left without aid, medical care, supplies, and other vital resources. International aid, meanwhile, was tied up and poorly distributed.

The dissatisfaction caused by the government’s response exacerbated the growing tensions between East and West Pakistan. In March of 1971 East and West Pakistan went to war. As the Bangladeshi Liberation war unfolded, West Pakistan decided to launch preemptive strikes on India, attacking 11 air force bases. This pulled India into the war. Then, India’s overwhelming counter-strike crippled West Pakistan and contributed to Bangladesh’s independence.

The Bhola Cyclone was thus responsible for not only killing hundreds of thousands of people, but also partially responsible for sparking a war and creating a new nation.

Seven of the Most Devastating Hurricanes In Modern History
Example of a dam

4. Nina- The Typhoon That Broke A Dam

Typhoon Nina caused over a billion dollars worth of damage in 1975. Worst yet, the typhoon claimed at least 229,000 lives, with most of the people being killed after a dam broke. Most of the casualties came in China, making Nina the deadliest storm to strike the Middle Kingdom in modern times. Numerous people and homes were also destroyed in Taiwan.

Interestingly, Typhoon Nina had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it reached mainland China. Damage at the initial point of impact was minimal, but the storm collided with a cold front and was held in place for two days. As a result, the storm inundated much of eastern China with heavy rains. In fact, the Chinese province of Henan was drenched with a year’s worth of rain over the course of just a few days.

The Banqiao Reservoir Dam, which is located in the Henan province, was overwhelmed and collapsed. Its collapse quickly flooded down stream cities and villages, and the massive influx of water caused the collapse of over 60 smaller downriver dams. Over 11 million people lost their homes, and over 200,000 died.

Officially, the Chinese government considers the disaster to be natural. According to the official narrative, it was only the freakishly heavy rain fall that caused the dam to collapse. However, numerous critics within and outside of China contend that shoddy construction doomed the Banqiao Dam. Well before the storm, cracks were appearing in the concrete and recommendations to add more sluice gates and other reinforcements were ignored.

The Banqiao dam has since been rebuilt with additional safety features and likely could withstand a similar storm, should one occur. Still, for the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives, and the millions who lost their homes, these reinforcements came far too late.

Up next, we’ll go over some honorable mentions.

Seven of the Most Devastating Hurricanes In Modern History
Hurricane Sandy damage

Mentions: Tip, Andrew, & Sandy

Typhoon Tip wasn’t the deadliest or costliest tropical cyclone, but owing to its massive size and power, it deserves an honorable mention. This category 5 typhoon was absolutely massive at its peak, stretching nearly 1,400 miles in diameter. To put that into perspective, the storm would have stretched from New York City to Houston, engulfing everything in between.

The storm weakened as it trekked across the Pacific and approached Japan. Making landfall in southern Japan, the storm caused massive flooding and indirectly led to a fire that caused the deaths of 13 American marines at Camp Fuji. Numerous other people were killed while at sea and in total 99 people died.

Hurricane Sandy was far from the strongest hurricane to hit American shores. Yet, damage and casualties often depend less on the strength of the hurricane and more on where it lands and how prepared people are. What makes Hurricane Sandy so unique is that it struck New York City and New Jersey, an area well north of where hurricanes typically make landfall.

This region was woefully unprepared for a storm of Sandy’s magnitude. Low lying areas and subway tunnels were flooded. Other areas were also heavily affected, including the mid-Atlantic and Appalachian mountains. In total, 24 different states were affected by the storm. Ultimately, nearly $75 billion dollars in damage was caused, primarily in the United States.

One of the more infamous storms, Hurricane Andrew, caused over $26 billion dollars in damage back in 1992. Andrew is one of only a few hurricanes to ever make landfall as a category 5 hurricane. Entire city blocks in South Florida were leveled by winds as high as 165 miles per hour. Across Florida, over 60,000 homes were completely destroyed and roughly 175,000 people were left homeless.

Andrew didn’t just affect Florida, however. Like Katrina, Andrew made its way into the Gulf of Mexico, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to oil wells. The storm also hit Louisiana, although was greatly weakened by that point. Regardless, it caused flooding and over a billion dollars in damage.

One thing’s for certain. More names will be added to this list in the future. Indeed, Hurricane Matthew killed over a 1,000 people in Haiti and across the Caribbean and United States. Luckily ample warning time and evacuation efforts reduced casualties.