The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history

Larry Holzwarth - November 16, 2018

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The eye of huge Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico in 2017. The damage and casualties from the storm are still being assessed. NOAA

15. Hurricane Maria in 2017 killed far more than originally believed

Originally the official death toll from 2017’s Hurricane Maria was announced as 64, in Puerto Rico. A study by George Washington University later altered the number of deaths which were caused by the storm and its aftermath to 2,975 in Puerto Rico, and the total number of deaths throughout the Caribbean and in the US mainland to have been 3,057, including four on the US mainland. After crushing the island territory of the United States landfall was projected to be on the coast of North Carolina. Maria instead turned off the Outer Banks, though its sheer size caused massive rainfall along the East Coast, and high winds knocked out power to many residents of the Havelock region.

Rather than coming ashore on the US mainland, Maria turned back to sea, and as it crossed the North Atlantic gradually lost its strength. The initial death tolls were erroneously reported for several reasons, including the lack of consistency among medical professionals in filling out death certificates. The George Washington University study used the statistical process of excess mortality to determine both the direct and indirect fatalities which were caused by the storm in Puerto Rico. The four deaths attributed to the storm on the US mainland were all drownings, with three caused by rip currents created by Maria claiming the lives of swimmers at the Jersey Shore. The fourth was a similar event in Florida.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The smoldering ruins of San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. Wikimedia

16. The San Francisco Earthquake and fires of 1906

The earthquake which struck the city of San Francisco on April 18 1906 was a catastrophic event which led to more than 80% of the city being destroyed either by the damage from the quake itself or from the fires which erupted throughout the city. More than three thousand citizens were killed, though some believe that the death toll was much higher, with many residents of Chinatown not counted among the dead. It remains the largest natural disaster in terms of loss of life in California’s history. Recent research moved the epicenter of the earthquake offshore, after years of belief that the center of the quake was in the vicinity of Olema, in Marin County. There were deaths outside of San Francisco as well, often not included as having died in the disaster. The vast majority of the fatalities were within the city however, and nearly two-thirds of the city’s population were left homeless.

Refugee camps were established and run by the United States Army. Some of the camps remained open for more than two years as the city was rebuilt. The many fires triggered by the earthquake destroyed much of the rubble, but they also destroyed wood and other building materials which otherwise could have been salvaged. Many businesses, tired of waiting for the needed materials to resurrect their firms, simply relocated to Los Angeles and other communities. San Francisco had been the biggest city on the West Coast (and the ninth largest in the nation) when the earthquake struck, a status which it never regained. Fighting the fires was hampered by the death of the city’s fire chief, Dennis Sullivan, who died of injuries he sustained during the earthquake itself, leaving the city’s firefighters leaderless. Broken water mains further hampered them, and many who survived the quake died from the fires as they were trapped in damaged buildings.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
A glum sailor sits on the wreck of the ship Priscilla in North Carolina following the ravages of the San Ciriaco hurricane. Wikimedia

17. The 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane was the longest lived Atlantic hurricane in history

The 1899 Atlantic hurricane which was also known as the Great Bahamas Hurricane and the 1899 Puerto Rico hurricane formed in early August of that year, being first observed off Cape Verde on August 3. By August 7 the storm was creating damaging weather conditions in the Caribbean, smashing across Puerto Rico on August 8, after which it approached Florida, leaving behind several Caribbean islands in a state of devastation. By August 14 the storm was off the coast of Florida when it turned to the northeast, headed back out to sea, before turning again, aimed at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On August 17 the hurricane, at Category 4 strength, made landfall near Hatteras. The following day the storm turned back out to sea.

Fatalities from the storm are estimates, though at least 3,500 deaths were attributed directly to the storm, with many more later dying of injuries sustained. The storm continued to wander the Atlantic in the general direction of the Azores, where more deaths were blamed on the hurricane. Several ships were lost at sea as the storm threatened the sea lanes. In North Carolina there were more than two dozen deaths, Virginia reported casualties and heavy damage from high winds, and a considerable loss of livestock due to flooding along the James River and its tributaries. At least 3,300 were killed in the new American territory of Puerto Rico, ceded to the United States by Spain only the year before the San Ciriaco hurricane.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The bodies of at least eighty victims of the Galveston Hurricane were pulled from the ruins depicted here in the aftermath of the storm. Wikimedia

18. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900

The deadliest natural disaster of American history was the Galveston hurricane of 1900, a storm of such intensity that it swept from Galveston, Texas, to eastern Canada. The storm struck the island of Galveston and covered it with a storm surge which placed the island under more than 12 feet of water. Landfall took place on September 9, and by the following day the formerly Category 4 storm had dropped in strength to a Category 1. Four days later the storm, which strengthened again as it traveled across the American Midwest to New England, appeared over the Newfoundland region of Canada, where it continued to sow death and destruction. Almost three hundred died in Canada from the storm, which though no longer a hurricane when it arrived there remained a killer.

The Galveston Hurricane killed an estimated 6 to 12 thousand people in the Caribbean, United States, and Canada. As many as eight thousand were killed in the town of Galveston alone, which found itself inundated with water in a matter of minutes. Galveston was a major center of trade and commerce prior to the storm, a status which it never recovered as trade shifted to Houston. Surviving buildings in Galveston were raised in elevation using the technique of pumping sand beneath their foundations. The entire city was effectively raised more than ten feet, some buildings as much as seventeen feet. The city also built a 17 foot seawall to protect the resurrected community. In 1915 another hurricane struck the island, and though 53 citizens of the town were killed, the number of dead was miniscule compared to the disaster of 1900.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Surprising Stories: The Great White Hurricane of 1888”. The New England Historical Society. 2017. Online

“The True Story of the Most Intense Hurricane You’ve Never Heard Of”. Willie Drye, National Geographic. September 8, 2017

“Remembering deadly Hurricane Audrey, 61 years later”. Melinda Harris, The Times-Picayune and Nola.com. June 27, 2017

“A Time of Terror”. Allan W. Eckert. 1965

“The 1936 Tupelo-Gainesville Tornado Outbreak”. Damon Poirier, The Marietta Daily Journal Time Capsule. April 5, 2016

“A look back at the disastrous Great New England Hurricane of 1938”. Matthew Cappucci, The Washington Post. September 21, 2018

“Tri-state tornado: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, March 1925”. John Galvin, Popular Mechanics. July 29, 2007

“Fatal heatwave twenty years ago changed Chicago’s emergency response”. Bonnie Miller Rubin and Jeremy Gorner, The Chicago Tribune. July 15, 2015

“Key West 1919” Sun-Sentinel. August 21, 2001. Online

“Sea Islands Hurricane”. Victoriana Magazine, 1996. Online

“Strained by Katrina, a Hospital Faced Deadly Choices”. Sheri Fink, The New York Times Magazine. August 25, 2009

“Dallas-Fort Worth heatwave of 1980 still seared into memories”. David Flick, Dallas News. August 6, 2010

“Cheniere Caminada’s ‘Great October Storm”. Christie Matherne Hall, Country Roads Magazine. September 27, 2016

“Florida’s forgotten storm: The Hurricane of 1928”. Nicole Sterghos Brochu, Sun Sentinel. September 14, 2003

“Trump falsely claims Hurricane Maria death toll was made up by Democrats”. Amanda Holpuch, The Guardian. September 13, 2018

“1906 San Francisco earthquake: Old photos offer new glimpses of devastation”. Bill Van Niekerken, San Francisco Chronicle. April 18, 2018

“Remembering the San Ciriaco Hurricane of 1899”. Carolina Country Magazine. August, 2014

“As Terrible As Harvey Is, The Galveston Hurricane Of 1900 Was Much, Much Worse”. Kevin Murname, Forbes Magazine. August 27, 2017

Advertisement