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
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