The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history

Larry Holzwarth - November 16, 2018

There are different definitions of what constitutes a natural disaster. Flooding caused by dam failure is sometimes considered a natural disaster and sometimes an engineering failure, depending on what caused the dam to fail. Poor design and inadequate maintenance, such as was the case in the failure of the St. Francis Dam near Los Angeles, and the Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, were man-made causes of disaster, which the whims of nature exploited to cause great loss of life in both instances. Calling them natural disasters removes the responsibility from the human failings. Fires started accidentally by humans have led to what became known as natural disasters as well. So have fires started deliberately.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
Many “natural disasters” such as the Currant Creek Forest Fire in Alaska, were the result of the activities of humans. National Park Service

Some of the worst forest fires in American history are called natural disasters because of their disastrous effect on nature, but were started by actions of humans. Fires deliberately set to burn undergrowth and the waste left behind by logging operations caused numerous catastrophic forest fires when high winds and dry conditions combined to drive them out of control. But their outbreak was nonetheless caused by the miscalculations of humans, however well intended. The following is a list of disasters which were the result of nature, though in many cases the actions of those in nature’s path (and sometimes the inaction) caused additional human suffering and casualties. The number of deaths in many are estimates, as are the financial losses, adjusted to reflect the value in current dollars.

Here are, based on the number of estimated deaths, the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
Although New England is not normally associated with hurricanes, it has been hit often, including in this depiction of an 1815 storm in Providence, Rhode Island. Wikimedia

1. The Great Northeast Blizzard of 1888 was known as the Great White Hurricane

The Great White Hurricane was a blizzard of immense proportions which occurred in March over a period of three days. The storm buried the East Coast of the United States from Chesapeake Bay to Maine, and on into Canada. The railroads ceased operations along most of the northeast corridor, where snowfalls ranged from ten inches to as much as 58 inches, driven by winds which exceeded 45 miles per hour. Some snowdrifts grew as much as fifty feet in height, while temperatures dropped rapidly from the unseasonably warm levels which preceded the storm. Officially classified as a northeaster by the National Weather Service the storm pummeled the east coast from March 12 through March 14. On the 13th the temperature in New York City was recorded as being nine degrees for the high for the day, the coldest March day ever recorded there.

Houses were buried in drifts which rose three and sometimes four stories above their roofs, trapping their occupants inside and choking chimneys. Snowdrifts blocked the railroads throughout the State of New York and all of New England, in some cases for more than a week. The storm wrecked or drove ashore more than 200 ships along the coast. Fires broke out in houses where firefighters were unable to reach them, and the loss of property was extensive across the region. More than 400 deaths were estimated to have been caused directly by the storm and the ensuing cold. The transportation disruption led to the proposal of a subway system in Boston, and to New York City moving its telegraph lines underground. Property damage was near $700 million in 2018 dollars, and when the storm melted it caused severe flooding in low lying areas throughout the northeast.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
An evacuation and rescue train shows the destructive force of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane in Florida. Wikimedia

2. The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane in Florida

The worst hurricane to ever hit the mainland United States (in terms of wind speed) occurred in 1935, before the custom of naming tropical storms began. It became known by its date of landfall, or rather the date of its first landfall, on September 2, 1935. It brought 185 mile per hour winds ashore with it, as well as a massive storm surge which prevented rescuers from reaching victims of the storm on the off-shore islands. Its second landfall, at Cedar Key, Florida, occurred on September 4, with a surge which exceeded twenty feet. The island town of Islamadora, which was scattered over five separate keys, was completely destroyed by the combination of wind and wave, as was the overseas railway which served the Florida Keys and of which Islamadora was a primary stop. The storm then proceeded across Georgia and the Carolinas before heading back out to sea.

Atlantic City, New Jersey recorded more than 13 inches of rain as the storm passed by on its way back to the Atlantic whence it had been born. It eventually dissipated south of Greenland. The unnamed storm was the first to be observed and tracked by airplane, though the pilot did not fly into the storm. He merely observed it from well outside its reach in order to report its path. Casualties of the storm were estimated then and remain estimates now, with a Congressional investigation listing 485 dead, including more than half of them workers at a veteran’s work camp established as one of the New Deal’s efforts to control the effects of the Great Depression. The Veteran’s Administration compiled a separate and disparate estimate of the number of those killed by the storm. Ernest Hemingway sat out the storm at his Key West home and later wrote an article condemning the US government for placing the veterans in harm’s way during hurricane season without arranging a means of evacuating them.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The track of Hurricane Audrey, a massively destructive storm which hit the United States in 1957. Wikimedia

3. Hurricane Audrey crushed Louisiana and the Gulf region in June 1957

The month of June is not normally considered part of hurricane season, but in 1957 during late June one of the deadliest storms to ever strike the United States was formed in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico. The storm developed with staggering speed, from a tropical depression to a full-fledged hurricane in less than 48 hours, moving all the while towards Louisiana. First observed on June 25, it made landfall near the mouth of the Sabine River on June 27, with winds exceeding 125 miles per hour and a storm surge which pushed a twelve foot wall of water before it, in some instances travelling more than 25 miles inland across the low-lying terrain and bayous. Tornadoes born of the hurricane added to the damage and extended the wake of the storm. Heavy rains across the Gulf region contributed to the damage while simultaneously hindering the efforts of rescuers.

Audrey was credited, if that is the word, with spawning nearly two dozen tornadoes as it traveled north and east across the United States, eventually breaking apart over West Virginia. It also established rainfall records in the Midwest which still stand in many instances, such as the more than ten inches dropped at Paris, Illinois. The flash flooding which resulted from the rains caused further deaths and destruction as the storm moved by, with the strong winds dropping power lines and causing further destruction. Damage from the storm was experienced as far north as Ontario and Quebec, with ten fatalities reported in the Canadian city of Montreal as a result of the storm. At least 416 people were killed by the storm, though estimates of the number of dead ranged much higher in some areas, and its final death toll will likely never be known for certain.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
Downtown Dayton, Ohio’s Ludlow Street at the height of the Great Flood in March 1913. Wikimedia

4. The 1913 Ohio floods across the state

The Great Flood of 1913 was the direct result of a weather event which created conditions along the lines of what later generations would call a perfect storm. Heavy rains created swollen rivers across the state of Ohio, in particular the Great Miami and Stillwater rivers north of Dayton, and the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers near Columbus. The Olentangy River reached flood stage first, followed by the Scioto, and the west side of the city of Columbus was under water on March 25, after the combined might of the flooded rivers collapsed the levees erected to contain them. Special trains were dispatched to nearby Buckeye Lake to retrieve excursion boats to be used for rescuing the survivors of the flood from rooftops and upper floors before the buildings were swept away. Further downriver in Chillicothe the Scioto cut itself a new channel, up to twelve feet in depth, down the center of the town’s Hickory Street.

Dayton was struck by the combined flooding of the Great Miami, Mad, and Stillwater Rivers, which inundated the city’s downtown area, causing massive destruction and deaths. From its location on the hills just south of the downtown area the National Cash Register Corporation was turned into a relief organization, building and operating rescue boats, its cafeterias feeding the survivors and its buildings serving as shelters and hospitals. The Miami and Erie Canal, an important part of Ohio’s economic history, was destroyed by the flooding in the Dayton region and to its south. More than 300 died in Dayton alone. The flooding of the rivers across the state, all of which eventually drained into the Ohio River, brought it to record flood levels, reaching 69 feet at Higginsport. About 430 people died as a result of the flooding across the state that March, though the exact number of dead has never been determined.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
An 1884 photograph of a tornado is believed by some to be the oldest existing, though others dispute its authenticity. Wikimedia

5. 1936 Tornado Outbreak near Gainesville and Tupelo

On April 5 and 6, 1936 a series of tornadoes raged across the American south, with confirmed tornadoes occurring in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The storms varied in strength from Force 2 to Force 5. A storm cell near Tupelo, Mississippi, spawned several storms, including one which killed over two hundred people alone and caused an additional 700 injuries, as well as massive structural damage to the city. The following day, April 6, a storm cell gave birth to tornadoes in Gainesville, Georgia. Two tornadoes swept into the city, grew together near the town’s Grove Street, and destroyed much of the downtown area and over 700 homes. More than 200 were killed in the Gainesville storms, during which at least three separate tornadoes swept through the city’s neighborhoods.

Gainesville’s Cooper Pants factory was destroyed by the storms, with at least 70 workers trapped inside the burning remains of the building after it was crushed by the winds. All of them were killed in the rubble. As the storm system moved to the east it continued to produce tornadoes which devastated the communities in its path. Letters which had been posted at the Gainesville Post Office were found as far away as Anderson, South Carolina, more than seventy miles away. The tornado scourge lasted about 16 hours, and at least twelve separate storms occurred, though in all likelihood several more took place in rural areas. More than 450 were killed, 2,500 injured, and untold thousands rendered homeless, or unemployed because their place of employment was destroyed. The system which created the tornadoes also produced heavy rains which created flash floods, adding to the overall destruction in its wake.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was also known as the Long Island Express after it ripped across the island near the Hamptons. Wikimedia

6. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938

The hurricane which struck New England in September 1938 first crossed Long Island before crossing the Sound and making a second landfall on the Connecticut coastline, earning it the nickname of the Long Island Express. As the storm crossed the Atlantic after forming near Africa it appeared to be bound for the coast of Florida, which was still recovering from the Labor Day hurricane three years earlier. Instead, weather conditions in the Appalachians and near Bermuda created a trough which caused the storm to make an abrupt right turn while just off Florida’s coast, and accelerated to the north. Due to the inaccurate methods of forecasting prevalent in the United States at the time, New England was ill-prepared for the storm, which caused the equivalent of over five billion dollars in damage as it crossed over the region in a single night before entering Canada.

The hurricane was a deadly storm as well, causing fatalities from the storm surge, high winds, tornadoes it spawned, and flash flooding. Over a third of the forests of New England was destroyed by the storm. Harvard University’s forestry program was reduced as a result of the storm, which destroyed the forest the school managed. The storm created new inlets and bays on Long Island, including Shinnecock Inlet. In Rhode Island, hundreds of beach front homes were swept to sea. A house in Charlestown was carried across the street on which it stood, and remained in its new location until 2011. Katharine Hepburn’s home in Old Saybrook, where she was in residence, was inundated by the storm, and she lost more than 90% of her belongings as a result, though she was able to escape to safety. Up to 800 people on Long Island and in New England were not so fortunate, losing their lives as a result of the hurricane.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
One of the many buildings destroyed by the Tri-state tornado, this one a school; the Longfellow school in Murphysboro, Illinois. Seventeen students were killed. Wikimedia

7. The tri-state tornado of 1925

In March of 1925 a series of tornadoes struck the Midwestern and several southern states, with a least a dozen known tornadoes causing significant damage at the cost of human life. A single tornado which became known as the tri-state tornado was the most significant. It traveled an estimated 235 miles across the states of Missouri where it formed, Illinois, and deep into Indiana before its trail of destruction came to an end. It was the longest traveled tornado in history. In its wake it left behind at least 695 dead, making it the deadliest tornado in American history, and has been equated to a Force 5 tornado, though the designation was not in use at the time it occurred. The tornado formed in the early afternoon and continued to move for just over three and a half hours.

Beginning in Shannon County in Missouri the storm set off to the east and slightly north, with anything in its path destroyed. By the time it crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois it had already killed a dozen people and carried with it much of the debris it had caused. The town of Gotham, Illinois was completely destroyed. The town of Parrish was likewise completely destroyed, never to be rebuilt. The tornado swept across the Wabash River into Indiana, leaving 613 dead in Illinois, giving the state the dubious distinction of having suffered the worst rate of deaths from a tornado event in America. More died in Indiana before the tornado came to an end near Pershing, Indiana just after 4.30 that afternoon. It had destroyed nine school buildings (killing 72 students), countless homes and farms, and obliterated whole towns on its trek to the east.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The famed Chicago fire was an event created by man, but the 1995 heat wave was created by nature, and was far more deadly. Wikimedia

8. The Chicago heat wave of 1995

Chicago’s weather is usually regarded for its cold winters, windswept by chill breezes along its streets and lakefront. In 1995 it became noted for an extended heatwave which was lethal in its intensity. The Chicago heat wave was generally regarded as a period of five days, with the intense heat accompanied by high humidity, which became worse from the evaporation of water from the lakes and streams as well as the release of moisture from plants. Nighttime temperatures remained high during the period, and offered little relief as the humidity remained in place. Chicago’s reputed breeziness did not exhibit itself. Many residents, particularly in poorer areas of the city, did not leave windows open out of fear of crime, and many did not have fans or air conditioning. By the time the heatwave moved off to the east Chicago had lost 739 of its citizens to heat-related deaths.

Chicago had suffered heat waves many times in its past, and the poor of the city had survived for the most part by sleeping outdoors. Crime drove many of the elderly poor into their locked homes, behind locked windows, in 1995. The majority of those killed by the excessive heat were elderly poor, with men suffering a higher death rate than women. Officially there was not a recorded death toll for the event, with city and state officials differing on the number of deaths which were directly caused by the heat, in comparison to the number of deaths which would have occurred due to natural causes. More than forty dead were never claimed by relatives, they were buried in a mass grave later in the summer. The city of Chicago finally declared a heat emergency on the final day of the heat wave.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
Key West Harbor displays some of the destruction in the aftermath of the 1919 hurricane which devastated the Florida Keys. Wikimedia

9. The hurricane in the Florida Keys of 1919

The 1919 Florida Keys hurricane, which is often referred to as the Key West Hurricane, amplified its damage because it moved across the region at a relatively slow speed while retaining its strength as a full-fledged Atlantic hurricane. The storm was born near the Leeward Islands and moved to the north and northwest during the first week of September. It reached hurricane strength on September 7 near the Bahamas. On September 9 it began to pummel the Florida Keys, by then a Category 4 hurricane in strength. Five days later the storm made landfall on the continent on the Texas coast near Baffin Bay as a Category 3 hurricane. During its crossing of the Gulf of Mexico the storm caused the loss of at least ten ships and the deaths of approximately 500 members of their crews. The number of people killed in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys was estimated as being between 600 and 900.

Texas was not spared either, with the storm surge, high winds, and heavy rains causing significant damage and further loss of life. In Corpus Christi nearly two dozen city blocks of homes were destroyed. Nearly 300 were killed in the city. Throughout Texas there were as many as six hundred dead. Official death counts contained lower figures because only recovered bodies were counted, those swept away or lost at sea were not included. At least one tornado was spawned by the hurricane, which damaged the town of Goulds in Florida. Corpus Christi erected its seawall in the aftermath of the storm as a response to the storm surge, which was reported to have been over sixteen feet in height. By September 16 the two week old storm broke apart near the Mexican border in West Texas, officially credited with over 770 fatalities, but unofficially with many more.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The track of the 1893 Sea Island hurricane shows the path of damage along the American and Canadian coasts. Wikimedia

10. The Barrier Islands Hurricane of 1893

The hurricane which struck the coast of Georgia and South Carolina in 1893 is known by different names, including the Sea Islands Hurricane, the Savannah Hurricane, and others. Nearly all that is known of the storm is in the form of estimates and conjecture, until it reached the United States East Coast. It was likely at Category 3 strength when it made landfall near Savannah, Georgia after crossing the Sea Islands on August 26, moving north along the coast before returning to the Atlantic after crossing into Canada. During its journey up the American coastline it retained its strength as a Category 3 storm, with communities which it encountered on its way reporting that it may have strengthened as it went. Charleston, South Carolina was struck by a second Category 3 storm while struggling to recover in October.

When the storm reached the New York region it was just days after another hurricane had preceded it, and it added more devastation in the wake of the first storm. Because of the additional damage to property and loss of life, accurate accounts of the number of deaths in each storm were impossible to gather. At least one thousand Americans lost their lives as a result of the Sea Islands hurricane, and some estimates put the number killed at around 2,000. New York City saw a storm surge over the sea wall at the Battery on the tip of Manhattan. Several boats were destroyed in the Hudson River, leading to further deaths. Pennsylvania and upstate New York saw crops destroyed by high winds and heavy rains which occurred just as they were ready to be harvested.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
Massive Hurricane Katrina, nearly as big as the Gulf itself, makes landfall in August 2005. NOAA

11. Hurricane Katrina in 2005

Hurricane Katrina was a massive storm which caused tremendous damage and loss of life from Florida to Texas. Much of the damage attributed to the storm around New Orleans was actually the result of engineering flaws and structural failures, which the storm exploited. Katrina became a hurricane only hours before its first landfall in Florida, weakened to a tropical depression as it crossed the state and upon entering the Gulf of Mexico grew in strength rapidly as it bore down on New Orleans. By the time it reached the area it was a Category 5 storm which had expanded in size to cover nearly the entire Gulf of Mexico. It weakened to a Category 3 storm prior to landfall, wreaking havoc to Mississippi and Louisiana, and the subsequent flooding, high winds, and storm surge, coupled with the inadequacies of preparation and response, led to at least 1,800 deaths.

The protective levees around New Orleans suffered more than fifty failures, which led to the severe flooding in the city and to most of the deaths which followed, according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Inadequate maintenance of the levees and errors in its original design were blamed on the US Army Corps of Engineers, which had built the system. Because of the failure of the levees in New Orleans Katrina is linked to that city, but the destruction the storm wrought was devastating to other communities, as in Gulfport, Mississippi, for example. Katrina was not downgraded to a tropical depression until it reached the region of Clarksville, Tennessee, and property damage attributable to the storm was recorded as far north as the Great Lakes. Had the levees not failed in New Orleans Katrina’s death toll would have been much lower, but the flaws would have remained until found by another storm.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
This derecho, photographed in 2012, traveled more than 600 miles from Indiana to the Atlantic, in just over ten hours. Wikimedia

12. The heat wave of the summer of 1980

In the summer of 1980 Hurricane Allen made landfall near the Mexican-American border after creating vast damage and loss of life in the Caribbean. As the remnants of the storm broke up, it ended a prolonged period of a high pressure system in the south which had been responsible for a devastating heat wave and drought in the United States, across the Midwestern states and the plains of the south. The heat wave began in June 1980, and created agricultural conditions which led to severe crop damage and the loss of more than $59 billion in farm production (as measured in current dollars, $20 billion was reported at the time). Record heat was recorded in multiple American cities and towns. Kansas City, Missouri experienced seventeen consecutive days when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees. Dallas/Fort Worth reached highs over 100 degrees 69 times that summer.

The excessive heat and the dry conditions led to numerous fires and heat emergencies were declared in cities across the country. Nonetheless, the nationally recorded death toll blamed on the heat and weather conditions exceeded 1,700, and many experts believed it to be higher. Wind storms known as derechos formed which did considerable damage to property and people. On July 5 a derecho formed in Nebraska and swept across the country to Virginia in only fifteen hours, killing six and injuring more than 70 people along the way. Another in Wisconsin killed three the same day. On June 26, 27, and 28 the high temperature at Dallas/Fort Worth was recorded at DFW airport as 113 degrees, which remains a record for the city, which during the heat wave also established a record for the highest low temperature for the city at 86 degrees.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
The tiny town of Cheniere Caminada was obliterated by the hurricane, and never rebuilt by its surviving residents. Wikimedia

13. The 1893 Louisiana hurricane known as Cheniere Caminada

In October 1893 New Orleans was hit by a hurricane which became known as the Great October Storm. The storm developed in the Caribbean, rushed ashore in Louisiana, traveled across the states of the Deep South and emerged in the Atlantic Ocean on October 4, where it gradually dissipated. When the storm struck Louisiana near Grand Isle it carried winds of 135 miles per hour, making it a Category 4 storm. The small town of Cheniere Caminada bore the brunt of the storm surge when it came ashore, and of the town’s estimated 1,500 residents 779 lost their lives. The storm surge was estimated to exceed 16 feet, and the surf which it drove severely altered the coastline. After sweeping over the little village the storm swept across the Gulf States, destroying citrus and rice crops and creating the equivalent of $102 million in damage.

The storm weakened as it swept through Alabama, but it still packed a lethal punch as it moved towards the Atlantic coastline. High winds and heavy rains damaged crops, destroyed homes, caused flash floods, and took lives. Although the death toll was based on estimates in all of the states affected by the storm, it is generally agreed that at least 2,000 were killed, many of them in small, rural communities in the then segregated south. The Cheniere Caminada was one of the most lethal hurricanes to hit the United States, and the worst of the several storms which struck the United States that year in terms of the number of deaths inflicted. The surviving citizens of the town for which the storm is named did not rebuild their community, which was literally wiped out, with only one structure standing after the storm passed through. All of the survivors relocated to other communities.

The 18 Deadliest Natural Disasters in American history
Some of the destruction in West Palm Beach following the Okeechobee Hurricane. Wikimedia

14. The Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928

The Okeechobee Hurricane was one of the deadliest in history, causing great death and destruction in the Caribbean before striking the United States’ territory Puerto Rico and ultimately the American mainland in Florida. Formed off the coast of Africa in early September, by the 13th it became a Category 5 storm, having already taken more than 1,200 lives in Guadaloupe. Around six o’clock that day the storm struck Puerto Rico, still at Category 5 strength. The storm damaged more than 200,000 homes, completely destroyed more than 24,000, and killed at least 312 people as it ravaged the island with the ferocity of winds which exceeded 160 miles per hour. Once the storm was once again over the Atlantic and sweeping through the Bahamas it weakened to a Category 4, on a direct course for the Florida Coast. Half a million Puerto Ricans behind it were left homeless.

On September 17 the storm, still a Category 4, crashed into West Palm Beach Florida, with a storm surge which forced water out of Lake Okeechobee at its southern shore. The displaced lake water and the storm surge created hundreds of square miles under water at depths of up to twenty feet. The storm turned to the northeast, reentered the Atlantic, and made another landfall at Edisto in South Carolina. It spent most of its fury in Florida, by the time it struck Edisto it was at Category 1 strength, and it quickly dissipated over the Carolinas. In total the storm killed over 4,000 people in the Caribbean and the United States. About 2,500 of the fatalities were on the US mainland, the vast majority of them killed by the flooding from Lake Okeechobee in Florida.

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 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