The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States

Larry Holzwarth - March 4, 2019

Comparing hurricanes can be done on several scales, including the size of the storm and the geographic area it impacted, damage to infrastructure, economic and financial impact, and others. More recent storms are considerably larger in terms of economic damage, for the most part because of inflation and increased populations along the coastlines. The most significant damage inflicted by hurricanes is the cost in terms of human lives. Modern meteorology provides early warnings of hurricanes and predicted tracks of their paths, but nonetheless two of the worst in American history, using loss of life as the measure, have occurred in the since those methods were devised.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
Debris in the Rockfish River in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille, Nelson County, Virginia. Wikimedia

Before the late nineteenth century there were no means of predicting and tracking hurricanes other than the observations of ships at sea, and the great storms occurred seemingly at random, rising up out of the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, crashing ashore with floods and torrential rains, spawning tornadoes in their fury. Some coastal communities were still in the process of rebuilding from a previous storm when they were struck again. Other communities were destroyed by hurricanes and abandoned, never to be rebuilt. Hurricanes have altered the settlement of America’s coastline, and became a factor in the economic development of cities and states. Here, in terms of loss of life, are the worst hurricanes to hit the United States. The 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane which devastated Puerto Rico and caused 3,500 deaths is not included because the US did not assume civil administration of the island until 1920.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The track of the 1886 Indianola Hurricane, which changed the economic future of Texas. Wikimedia

1. The Indianola Hurricane of 1886

In 1875, the Texas coastal port of Indianola rivaled that of Galveston, and was the second most important port for the state. That year Indianola was ravaged by a hurricane which destroyed most of the town and the port facilities, and created navigational hazards for ships desirous of entering the port when it destroyed the lighthouses which marked dangerous shoals. Nonetheless, the city’s leaders began rebuilding both the town and the port facilities while most of the trade which had been Indianola’s moved to the port of Galveston.

The town and the port were still rebuilding in the summer of 1886. On August 20, a hurricane pushed before it a storm surge of fifteen feet into the town, destroying or rendering unusable every building in the community. Fires started by broken gas mains and overturned stoves completed the task started by the flood. Every building in Indianola was destroyed by the hurricane and its aftermath. The nearby village of Quintana, along the Brazos River, was also destroyed. Estimates of deaths vary, with 174 being generally agreed upon. Five weeks later another hurricane struck the Texas coast and Indianola was flooded yet again. The town was abandoned, and today its remnants stand as a ghost town.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The hurricane which struck Georgia in 1898 had little advance warning preceding its landfall. CBS

2. The Georgia Hurricane of 1898

The strongest hurricane on record to hit the coast of Georgia, the 1898 storm swept across Cumberland Island on October 2, with a 16 foot storm surge reported in Brunswick. Hutchinson Island in the Savannah River, north of the eye of the storm, was completely inundated with water. The Port of Savannah found it docks, wharves, and facilities under water from the surge, and most of its waterfront warehouses and sheds were flooded, causing severe financial damage. The hurricane was relatively compact, with its peak winds limited to a radius of an estimated 20 miles, but high winds spawned by the hurricane caused crop damage in Florida and Jacksonville, 50 miles to the southwest, reported 60 mph winds.

The United States Weather Bureau issued a storm warning the day before the storm came ashore in Georgia, which covered from Key West to as far north as Norfolk, Virginia. Nonetheless, when the storm came ashore the coastal communities of Georgia were ill prepared, and in addition to the severe property damage caused by the storm surge and the high winds (estimated a century later to have peaked at 135 mph), 179 were believed killed by the hurricane, some as far north as Charleston, South Carolina. Highlands, North Carolina reported 12.5 inches of rain which were dumped on the region as the storm dissipated.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
An August, 1955 weather mapr depicting Hurricane Diane, which caused serious flooding in the American northeast. Wikimedia

3. Hurricane Diane hit North Carolina in 1955

During the hurricane season of 1955 North Carolina found itself the target of three separate hurricanes, all of which made landfall along its coastline. One of the storms was Hurricane Connie (in those days all hurricanes were given female names) which struck just south of Wilmington on August 12. Five days later Diane hit the same area, though it had weakened to a tropical storm prior to landfall. Diane crawled up the eastern Atlantic states, through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, before returning to the Atlantic south of New York City, though the heavy rains it produced created flooding in southern New England. The worst flooding in the history of Connecticut was generated by Diane’s heavy rains.

Diane destroyed more than 800 houses, damaged more than 14,000 more, and in New England alone caused the breach of more than 200 dams and levees. The ensuing floods swept away bridges and towns, destroyed crops, and damaged roads and other infrastructure. Areas of eight eastern states were declared federal disaster areas in the storms wake. Across the region which suffered from the storm and the disasters it spawned at least 184 people lost their lives, 101 of them in the flooding the hurricane generated in Pennsylvania. The name Diane was stricken from the list of names to be assigned to hurricanes in tribute to the damage caused by the storm, despite it being a tropical storm when it first came ashore.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 pummeled the Gulf and the Florida Keys as it crept up the Gulf Coast of Florida. NOAA

4. The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

Hurricanes were not yet assigned names based on those of either gender when the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the United States in the twentieth century struck the Florida Keys and the west coast of the state on Labor Day, 1935. The first landfall of the storm was on Long Key, where the storm surge and its ebb created new channels between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. On September 4, two days later, it made a second landfall at Cedar Key. The west coast of Florida was inundated by heavy rains, driven by strong winds. The town of Islamorada, spread across five islets in the Keys, was virtually eliminated by the storm surge and the high winds.

Preparations to evacuate the areas hit by the storm included an eleven car evacuation train which was struck by the storm surge, toppling all eleven cars, which were fully occupied. Miraculously, all of the passengers survived. The exact number of those killed by the storm has been disputed ever since, with some records listing 208 killed by the storm itself, and others up to 450 dying in the storm and in the events which occurred during its aftermath. The dispute over the number of deaths from the storm was based on discrepancies of the number of homeless veterans being housed in camps in the affected region when the storm struck, and the inadequate records kept by federal officials regarding the veterans, most of whom were transients.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
Flooding in Hartford, Connecticut as a result of the Great New England Hurricane in 1938. Wikimedia

5. The New England Hurricane of 1938

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 made landfall on Long Island on September 21, crossed the island, and smashed into New England. Despite its name, it also caused severe damage from heavy rains in New Jersey and Delaware, altered the coastline of Long Island, and changed the curricula at Harvard University, by destroying the school’s managed forests. Their rival, Yale, also had one of its managed forests obliterated by the storm, but the Eli’s had the foresight to have a second location further inland, and were able to continue the school’s forestry program comparatively unchanged. Thirty-five to forty per cent of the forests in New England were damaged or destroyed by the storm.

Over 4,500 farms and houses were totally destroyed across New England, more than 25,000 were damaged, railroad operations were disrupted for months, and the electrical power and telephone grids were crippled when more than 20,000 poles which carried their lines were knocked down. An estimate 700 people were killed by the storm, most of them in Rhode Island, which suffered the highest winds and storm surge. Rescue trails in the New England woods, and those created by loggers to remove the downed trees as quickly as possible to eliminate the fire hazard they presented were still visible twenty years later, and some still exist today, used as nature trails.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
1969’s Hurricane Camille wrought destruction from the Gulf Coast of Texas to the mountains to the Tidewater of Virginia. NOAA

6. Hurricane Camille in 1969

Hurricane Camille was a Category 5 storm when it made landfall at Pass Christian, Mississippi, on August 18, 1969. Before it entered the Atlantic Ocean after crossing up the Mississippi Valley, the Ohio Valley, and the Appalachian Mountains, it caused the equivalent of nearly $10 billion in damages in 2018 dollars, and killed at least 259 people. Camille was preceded by a storm surge in excess of 24 feet when it crashed ashore, moving at relatively high speed. The speed at which the storm traveled inland and up the Mississippi Valley limited the amount of rainfall it dropped in the areas it transited at first, with the area of landfall receiving less than ten inches of rain. Camille then moved up the Ohio Valley.

As it moved north and east the storm dropped in intensity and speed of travel, but the rainfall amounts it generated increased. By the time Camille arrived in Virginia, after crossing the Appalachians, it dropped sufficient rainfall to create flash flooding and mudslides. During a period of 3-5 hours in Virginia, Camille generated 12-20 inches of rainfall, on grounds which were unfortunately already soaked by preceding rains. Camille’s force when it first made landfall was so great that all meteorological equipment to measure its wind speed was destroyed, and thus can only be estimated. Most recent estimates are that the sustained winds were at 190 mile per hour at landfall.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
After a hurricane once again demolished Galveston in 1915 it continued to cause heavy rains and severe flooding all the way to the St. Lawrence River. Wikimedia

7. The 1915 Galveston Hurricane

Following the hurricane which struck at Galveston in 1900, the city erected a seawall to limit the storm surge which flooded the city. In 1915 a hurricane struck at Galveston again, and the seawall held back the storm surge as it was designed to do, but when the high waters which were held back on the beaches receded, it took most of the beaches away. Galveston was left with a sandbar well offshore, and though attempts to recreate the beaches were made over time, they were never fully rebuilt. The hurricane came ashore at Galveston as a category 4 storm, and its high winds and heavy rains caused substantial damage, but thanks to the seawall there was no catastrophic flooding in the city.

Near the town’s 39th street, a large four mast ship was swept over the seawall, which it caught with its anchors, only to be broken apart by the storm’s battering it against the top of the wall. There was flooding in the city, caused by the heavy rains which overwhelmed the storm drains. After leaving Galveston behind it the storm traveled across the nation via the Ohio Valley, causing flash flooding and mudslides before it finally fell apart near the end of August. Between 275 and 400 deaths were attributed to the storm and its aftermath, but of those only 11 were in the city of Galveston itself, a low number which was the result of the seawall and its prevention of the storm surge crashing through the city.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
A heavily damaged streetcar shed at the corner of Poland and St. Claude Avenues shows heavy damage following the 1915 New Orleans Hurricane. Wikimedia

8. The New Orleans Hurricane of 1915

The New Orleans hurricane which made its landfall near Grand Isle on September 29, 1915, came ashore as either a low end category 4 storm or a very strong category 3. Two days before the storm made landfall the Weather Bureau issued warnings for the entire east coast from Maine to Florida. The following day it extended the warnings to the Gulf Coast. As the storm approached many residents of the area heeded the warnings and evacuated, reporting a rapid rise in water levels as a result of the storm surge, which reached as high as twenty feet in some areas. Lake Pontchartrain overtopped, but did not breach its levees, though much of New Orleans was still flooded as a result.

It was reported in the aftermath the most of the damage to the city of New Orleans was caused by the high winds, with virtually every structure in the city which remained standing displaying extensive damage to roofs and other areas. Nearby Leeville was left with only one house surviving the storm. Power, phone, and telegraph service were all disrupted by downed lines, hampering the efforts of rescuers, and damage to the railyards prevented the timely arrival of supplies. In all, 279 dead around the region were accounted for, with many of the victims never being found. Some estimate the actual death toll to be much higher.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The 1909 hurricane which leveled Grande Isle was but eight days old when it made landfall, causing sever damage and loss of life. CBS

9. The Grand Isle Hurricane of 1909

Unlike many Atlantic hurricanes, which form off the coast of Africa and gather strength as they make their journey westward across the ocean, the Grand Isle hurricane formed in the Caribbean, south of what it now Haiti, and first caused considerable damage in Cuba before traveling across the Gulf of Mexico, both gaining strength and accelerating iis forward motion as it moved towards the United States. On September 21, the storm was eight days old when it made landfall on Grand Isle. The storm surge generated by the storm covered up to six miles inland along the Louisiana coast, while sustained winds of over 120 mph leveled trees, crops, and power and communication lines.

Although the storm was short-lived, breaking up quickly the day following landfall, it wreaked severe damage in Louisiana, mostly due to the storm surge. Mississippi also suffered heavy damage to property and infrastructure, especially in Natchez and Biloxi. Pensacola, Florida, was also heavily damaged along it waterfront, both from the rising water levels and winds which reached 60 mph. Across the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi River crop losses exceeded 35%, a serious economic blow to the region. Official estimates were that 379 people were killed in the storm, though the actual death toll was believed by many to have been considerably higher than the official account.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
A track generated from reports of the 1856 hurricane which split Last Island into two separate islands. Wikimedia

10. The Last Island (Isle Derniere) Hurricane 1856

The 1856 hurricane which made landfall on Last Island changed the island forever by first completely submerging it under a storm surge of more than 13 feet of water, and then cutting it in half as the waters receded, creating a new channel separating the remnants of the popular vacation resort. The island was home to hotels and gambling parlors in the antebellum south, where the wealthy members of society mingled with professional gamblers and card sharps who arrived on the steamboats to New Orleans and other coastal communities. Ferries carried the vacationers and those who hoped to fleece them out to the island.

When the storm struck in August of 1856, no fewer than five vessels were sunk when they failed to receive a timely warning of the storm, which was first reported near Dry Tortugas on August 9. Heavy rains pelted the mainland, destroyed crops, and caused flash floods. Of the approximately 400 vacationers and gamblers on the island at the time of landfall nearly 200 died, another 200 or so were lost at sea. The death toll did not include the number of slaves who were killed in the disaster. The true death toll was likely much higher. A great number of the victims were millionaire (a relatively new term) sugar and rice growers and the press treated the disaster much as it did nearly sixty years later when the Titanic went down with so many rich and famous personages aboard.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
A map depicting the rainfall pattern from Hurricane Audrey in 1957. The rain led to flooding which contributed to many deaths. Wikimedia

11. Hurricane Audrey in 1957

Until it was equaled by Hurricane Alex in 2010, Audrey was the strongest June hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, including the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The storm made landfall near the Sabine River in Louisiana on June 27, 1957 after first causing extensive damage to offshore oil drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Its storm surge penetrated inland more than twenty miles, peaking at just under thirteen feet. As Audrey moved inland it spawned nearly two dozen tornadoes in Mississippi and Alabama, adding to the spread of destruction it left behind in its wake. In the Midwest, several communities established single day rainfall records while the storm dissipated into a low pressure system, though it continued to move north into Canada, where at least 10 people died as a result of the heavy winds.

Audrey caused extensive damage to transportation systems, flooding which altered the navigable channels of the Mississippi River, knocked out power across a wide swath of the United States, and took the lives of at least 420 people, the majority of whom were killed in the Louisiana community of Cameron by the storm surge. The death count is only an estimate, the exact number of people killed in the storm has never been determined. Its power was such that hurricane force winds of 80 mph were recorded in St. Albans, Vermont. In the aftermath of the storm the name Audrey was retired from the list of available names for hurricanes of the future.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
Damage at Miami Beach following the Great Miami Hurricane, which ended the Florida building boom. National Weather Service

12. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926

For most of the nation the Great Depression began with the stock market collapse in October 1929, but in south Florida the economic downturn began in the aftermath of the hurricane which struck on September 18, 1926. It was the deathblow to the land boom which Florida enjoyed during the 1920s and destroyed thousands of acres of crops. Many recent arrivals to the state left in the aftermath of the storm, taking with them their savings, bringing hundreds of small banks to the edge of bankruptcy. The death toll was estimated to have been as high as 550, and the economic damage, when adjusted for inflation, makes the storm the second worst in American history.

The storm made two additional landfalls after sweeping across the tip of the Florida peninsula, one in Alabama and a second in Mississippi. In Florida, Lake Okeechobee created a storm surge which destroyed the nearby town of Clewiston, washed away levees and dikes, and placed Moore Haven under a flood of up to fifteen feet of water. Nearly all of the town’s buildings were driven off their foundations by the surging water, and more then 150 bodies were found in the wreckage in the aftermath of the storm. After entering the Gulf of Mexico the storm pummeled the city of Pensacola with hurricane force winds for more than twenty hours, and Pensacola bay found nearly all of its waterfront destroyed.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
Savannah, Georgia in 1881, after that year’s hurricane ravaged its waterfront. Georgia Archives

13. The Georgia Hurricane of 1881

The hurricane season of 1881 was a relatively quiet one for the continental United States, though the limited weather tracking ability of the time makes it impossible to know for certain how many storms formed at sea that year. One which did came ashore between Savannah, Georgia and St. Simons Island on August 27 at 9.30 in the evening, with little warning and little preparation by residents of the region. Estimated to have been a Category 2 storm, with peak winds of 80 mph measured before those same winds destroyed the anemometer, the storm moved quickly inland. Its landfall coincided with high tide, and the high waters caused extensive damage in Savannah and on the barrier islands.

The flooding in Savannah was particularly deadly, and at least 335 people were killed in the city, either by drowning or from injuries sustained as buildings collapsed under the weight of the onrushing water. As the hurricane moved west it continued to drop heavy rains across the South, finally breaking up in Mississippi by the end of the month. The high winds began to subside in Mississippi on August 29. The storm killed at least 700 people across the south from the combination of its destructive winds, heavy rains leading to flooding, the storm surge in Savannah and along the coast.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The Florida Keys have felt the effects of hurricanes and tropical storms many times, including the devastation of the 1919 hurricane. Youtube

14. The 1919 Florida Keys Hurricane

There have been in the past several hurricanes and tropical storms which were known as Florida Keys hurricanes, but the storm which struck in the Keys in 1919 was a monster which earned the title, though it is sometimes referred to as the Key West Hurricane. The storm swept across the Florida Keys beginning on September 9 as a category 4 storm, before weakening as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico to make its final landfall in Texas at category 3 strength. Ten ships were sunk by the hurricane, leading to approximately 500 deaths, over half of all those killed by the storm.

In the Keys warnings of the approaching storm were announced only hours before it arrived, and in some cases only minutes before the storm surge inundated the islets and communities. By September 10, when the storm made landfall on Dry Tortugas, it was packing sustained winds of 150 mph, and gusts were reported over 200 mph. The storm was, at the time, the second most powerful to ever make landfall on territory of the United States. After it wavered in the Gulf, weakening slightly, it went on to wreak havoc in Texas, with its storm surge and high winds demolishing houses, businesses, docks, crops in the fields, and killing as many as 600 in Texas alone according to some estimates. The official total deaths attributed to the storm was 745.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane devastated the East Coasts of the United States and Canada before returninbng to the Atlantic. Wikimedia

15. The Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893

The Sea Islands Hurricane hit the coast of Georgia in late August, near Savannah, made a sharp right turn, and moved up the east coast of the United States and eastern Canada before returning to the Atlantic, where it finally dissipated. Long estimated to have made landfall as a category 3 storm, modern analyses of the known data collected during the storm, mostly of the low barometric pressures associated with it, have caused the storm to become considered to have been at least a category 4 hurricane. The Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia were the first to feel the brunt of the storm, and they were overwhelmed by the storm surge.

At least 1,000, and estimates of up to 2,000, people were killed in the storm, most of them on the Sea Islands and most of them by drowning in the storm surge. Many more died in the aftermath as rescue efforts were hampered by succeeding storms. Although the Sea Islands were hit on August 27, relief from the Red Cross did not arrive in the region until early October, more than 1 month later. When relief did arrive, it remained for an intensive rebuilding effort of the homes which were swept away on the islands, which lasted for nearly a year. As the storm swept north it added to the damage inflicted by another hurricane which had struck New York and Long Island on August 24.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The 1893 Cheniere Caminada hurricane led to the complete devastation of the community, killing more than half of its population. Wikimedia

16. The Cheniere Caminada Hurricane of 1893

The town of Cheniere Caminada gave its name to the hurricane which destroyed it in 1893, west of Grand Isle. The storm which made landfall there on October 2 came ashore with 135 mph sustained winds and a storm surge exceeding 16 feet. Approximately 1500 residents occupied the town ona penisula of the Louisiana mainland prior to the storm. More than half of them died as the hurricane passed through the region, mostly from the storm surge. In the aftermath of the storm the town was abandoned. “The settlement of Cheniere Caminada has been swept out of existence” read the Thibodeaux Sentinel on October 7, 1893.

The storm, which is also known as the Great October Storm, continued on its way, making a second landfall in Mississippi after crossing the northern Gulf, then moving across the states of the deep south before finally entering the Atlantic Ocean, where it fell apart by the ninth of October. Behind it, across the path it had followed, were at least 2,000 dead according to most estimates. Estimates of the number of injured survivors range as high as 35,000. The economic damage to the southern crops of rice and oranges was heavy, and the Panic of 1893 added to the difficulties of recovery for the agricultural industry across the southern states.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
Massive Hurricane Katrina with its well defined eye bore down on New Orleans, and created severe destruction and over 1800 dead. NOAA

17. Hurricane Katrina in 2005

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans in August of 2005, it was the beginning of a series of disasters which befell the city and its environs. Politicized in its aftermath, the storm led to the failure of levees, an event which caused the majority of the deaths during the disaster, and which led to finger pointing over the responsibility for the failure to maintain the levees adequately. Over 80% of the city of New Orleans was flooded to some extent, and the floodwaters did not recede for weeks. Gulfport, Mississippi took the heaviest of Katrina’s winds, which led to extensive devastation of that community as well.

In total 1,833 dead were attributed to the storm and its aftermath, a total which did not include some of the deaths which occurred as a result of looting and store and business owners protecting their property in New Orleans. Although Katrina is inextricably linked with that city, where the majority of the deaths occurred, its path of destruction was huge. The hurricane also produced a record number of tornadoes for a single day in Georgia, while deaths attributed to the hurricane occurred as far north as Ohio, where flooding from heavy rains claimed at least two victims.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
During the 1928 hurricane Lake Okeechobee spilled over its banks and wiped out whole towns with its storm surge. NOAA

18. The Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928

The only major hurricane to impact the United States during the 1928 season made up for the shortage of storms that year with its exceptional ferocity. Before making landfall on the American mainland it had already killed almost 2,000 people in the Caribbean islands. Its landfall on the mainland took place on September 17, at West Palm Beach, with the storm carrying sustained winds of 145 mph. It created a storm surge at Lake Okeechobee which flooded hundreds of square miles, putting some communities under twenty feet of water, and drowning more than 2,500 residents of towns such as Belle Glade, Pahokee, and South Bay.

The storm then adopted a curving course, returned to the Atlantic, and made another landfall on the United States at Edisto in South Carolina, below Charleston, and though its winds had by then lessened to 85 mph it was still a deadly storm. The aftermath of the massive storm, which in total killed over 4,000 people, 2,500 of them in the United States, led to numerous flood control projects along the affected coastline. By far the majority of American deaths were in the communities flooded by Lake Okeechobee, and the state of Florida took steps to improve building codes and created the Lake Okeechobee Flood Control District, which worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to create a system to prevent similar disasters.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
The Great Hurricane of 1780 was possibly the strongest storm to ever hit the Caribbean and Atlantic seaboard. Wikimedia

19. The Great Hurricane of 1780

The hurricane of October, 1780 altered history. As it swept across the Caribbean it caused severe damage to the British fleet spread across the region, with the loss of many warships and troop transports there to defend British interests from French raids, and to support operations of the British army in North America. Both the size of the storm and the number of casualties it caused are estimates, with the number being cited as high a 24,000 in the Leeward Islands alone. It is believed from the journals and diaries left behind that the actual death toll in the Caribbean was likely around 20,000, and though the eye of the storm did not strike the continental United States, its winds and rain moved slowly up the east coast.

At least ten British warships were lost in the storm, severely weakening the empire’s strength in the West Indies. A British man of war was driven inland on the island of Saint Lucia, where the storm surge deposited it on top of a military hospital, destroying both with heavy loss of life. Military operations by Washington’s army in New York were canceled due to the driving rain and high winds felt in the Hudson Valley. The French suffered losses as well, the heavy frigate Junon was lost in the Caribbean with its crew, and approximately 9,000 troops and civilians in French settlements were swept away by storm surges and floods. The Great Hurricane of 1780 cost more, in terms of loss of human life, than entire decade’s worth of storms which occurred later.

The 20 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes to Ever Hit the United States
Wreckage and debris floating along the Galveston waterfront following the Hurricane of 1900, the deadliest natural disaster in American history. Library of Congress

20. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900

The hurricane known as the Great Storm of 1900 was not only the deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States, but the greatest natural disaster in American history in terms of loss of human life. Estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000 deaths as a result of the storm, with most agreeing on the frequently cited figure of 8,000 dead. The exact amount of loss of human life will never be known. The storm changed the history of Texas, as the aftermath led to the shift to Houston as the major trade center for investors in the state, and Galveston’s reign as the leading port came to an end.

The entire island of Galveston was flooded by the storm surge and all bridges which connected the island to the mainland were destroyed. An orphanage on the island, St. Mary’s, had 103 residents at the time of the storm; ten nuns and 93 children. Only three children survived. The storm turned to the northeast over Texas and crossed the United States into Canada, where at least 53 Canadians lost their lives, and possibly as many as 350 were killed. Ships were sunk on Lake Erie by the combination of the high winds and the rough waters. In New York City water and harbor debris overtopped the seawall along the battery. In Texas, the city of Galveston was destroyed, though rebuilding began less than three weeks after the storm passed over the island.


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