Barber Shop located in Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana, damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005

Barber Shop located in Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana, damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash)

Extreme weather and climate change are on the forefront of many news reports and weather tracking platforms. The history of destructive storms in the United States goes all the way back to the founding days of the nation and have continued to the present. When considering preparation for future storm systems, we found it to be most insightful to look to the past to understand the impact and public response to items on our list of the five worst hurricanes of all time.

When Hurricane Ian hit Florida in 2022, it was one of the United States’ most powerful hurricanes on record, and it followed a two-week string of massive, devastating storms around the world. A few days earlier in the Philippines, Typhoon Noru gave new meaning to rapid intensification when it blew up from a tropical storm with 50 mph winds to a Category 5 monster with 155 mph winds the next day. Hurricane Fiona flooded Puerto Rico, then became Canada’s most intense storm on record. Typhoon Merbok gained strength over a warm Pacific Ocean and tore up over 1,000 miles of the Alaskan coast. A lot of people are asking about the role rising global temperatures play in storms like these. It’s not always a simple answer, and it seems that this problem will only get worse.

That being said, research suggests we should brace yourself for some gnarly hurricane seasons in the coming years. Scientists are predicting back-to-back hurricanes in coastal areas in the next few decades. Some areas, like the Gulf coast of the United States, will likely see double hits once every three years, according to new estimates. “Rising sea levels and climate change make sequential damaging hurricanes more likely as the century progresses,” says study lead author Dazhi Xi, a postdoctoral researcher and a former graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, in a university release. “Today’s extremely rare events will become far more frequent.”

This topic is fascinating for some, but somber for many others. Extreme storm systems are becoming more common and our list of the five worst hurricanes serves as a way to consider past damage and response to prepare future generations. Please share your experiences with surging storms with us in the comments below.

Hurricane viewed from radar equipment
Hurricane viewed from radar equipment (Photo by NASA on Unsplash)

The List: Worst Hurricanes in History, According to Experts

1. Galveston, Texas (1900)

Hands-down the worst storm in United States history occurred over Galveston, TX in 1900. “This hurricane sets the record for the most casualties still to this day, with an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 deaths. This Category 4 storm hit the city of Galveston in September 1900, with winds over 135 miles-per-hour. The city wasn’t as prepared as it should have been because unfortunately, the forecasters‘ predictions were wrong about where the storm was heading. Hurricane science was very new, to the point that they didn’t even predict the storm would enter the Gulf of Mexico,” explains Green Matters.

“The ‘Great’ Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is by far the deadliest natural disaster to impact the United States. It made landfall on Sept. 8, 1900 as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 mph. After crossing over Cuba as a tropical storm, it emerged from the Florida straight and quickly intensified to hurricane status. The storm continued to churn in the Gulf of Mexico, gaining strength before making a right turn into Texas. Galveston was hit with catastrophic damage, but the destruction wasn’t confined to the Gulf area. The storm continued its path north and slowly weakened as it passed over Oklahoma, the Great Lakes and Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada,” offers Fox 13 News.

“The Galveston Hurricane was the deadliest weather disaster in U.S. history, according to NOAA. The storm system formed over the Atlantic, and traveled to the Gulf of Mexico, while picking up strength and speed. It hit landfall in Texas, just south of Galveston. Its power tore across the Great Plains, then weakened as it traveled northeastward through the Great Lakes, New England and southern Canada,” states CBS News.

2. Lake Okeechobee, Florida (1928)

The next historical storm on our list touched down in Florida, and had a ruinous effect on the lives of Black Farmworkers. “In 1928, not that many people lived in Florida, and the area around Lake Okeechobee was filled with mostly farmers at the time. But in Galveston, Fl., residents were warned of the incoming Category 4 hurricane — they just weren’t given an accurate time of arrival. After they had thought the storm had come and gone, they returned home only to soon be greeted by 140 mile-per-hour winds and water surges that wiped homes right out of the ground, resulting in an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 casualties, per Farmer’s Almanac,” details Green Matters.

The damage and loss of life in this event highlight the need to invest in infrastructure. “The San Felipe-Okeechobee Hurricane was a Category 4 hurricane that hit Florida on September 16, 1928. It caused a storm surge that breached the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee and flooded the surrounding area, resulting in an estimated 2,500 deaths,” offers American

“More than 2,000 people lost their lives as this hurricane made its way from the Leeward Islands to Florida. The storm first made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane with wind speeds exceeding 140 mph and 312 were killed on the island. The hurricane eventually landed near Palm Beach, Florida several days later. Inland Lake Okeechobee was hit hardest in the state as the hurricane caused a lake surge of 6 to 9 feet. More than 2,000 people died in Florida, mostly due to lake surge,” writes The Hill.

3. Hurricane Maria (2017)

One of the more recent storms on our list is a stark reminder of nature’s power. “With maximum sustained winds over 175 miles per hour, Hurricane Maria blasted Puerto Rico to claim more than 3,000 lives and generate nearly $100 billion in property damage. It remains the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. As of 2021, residents of the island continue to recover from the once-in-a-lifetime hurricane,” according to Morgan & Morgan.

“In September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Dominica, Saint Croix, and Puerto Rico. It was a category five hurricane. It is the worst natural disaster ever to hit those islands. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season saw Maria become the 13th named storm, the eighth in a row, the fourth significant, and the second Category 5 hurricane. Since Mitch in 1998, Maria was the worst Atlantic storm,” writes AZ Animals.

“It was one of the deadliest storms to hit the U.S. Originally, the death toll was underreported by the government, with 64 deaths. After an independent investigation, the number was revised to 2,975, while experts believe it could be as high as 4,500. The hurricane caused widespread flooding on the island and caused one of the longest blackouts in the history of the U.S.,” states Fodor’s Travels.

4. Hurricane Camille (1969)

Some readers may remember this storm. “When Hurricane Camille made landfall the evening of Aug. 17, 1969, along the Mississippi Gulf Coast near Waveland, Mississippi, it had a wind speed of 175 mph. Or at least that’s what post-storm reanalysis data indicates. The precise wind speed isn’t known because ‘the hurricane destroyed all the wind-recording instruments in the landfall area,’ according to the National Weather Service,” states The Healthy.

“Because of its record-breaking power, Hurricane Camille destroyed all the wind-measuring instruments set up in Galveston Bay. Camille came ashore compactly, churning up a storm surge of 24 feet. The incredible storm surge was the main reason why 259 people lost their lives. Camille’s path of destruction left behind $1.4 billion in property damage, which would have been considerably higher if the storm had grown in size before making landfall,” adds Morgan & Morgan.

“When Hurricane Camille hit in August 1969, it was a nasty storm that brought heavy flooding and 200-mile per hour (320-kilometer per hour) winds to the Gulf Coast and later Virginia. It also was one of only two Category 5 hurricanes to hit the Continental U.S. since 1900. (Since then two others have made landfall: Andrew in 1992 and Michael in 2018.) After forming near the Cayman Islands in August 1969, Camille first blew through Cuba as a Category 3 but intensified in the Gulf of Mexico making a beeline for Mississippi where it made landfall… Camille still ranks as the second most intense hurricane to hit the continental U.S.,” details How Stuff Works.

5. Hurricane Katrina (2005)

As the third once-in-a-lifetime storm on our list, many readers can recognize that these problematic storm systems are becoming more frequent. “Hurricane Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast of the United States on August 29, 2005. The storm surge breached the levees in New Orleans, causing catastrophic flooding and resulting in over 1,800 deaths,” writes American Oceans.

“An estimated storm surge of 25 feet in Mississippi was one of the contributing factors that made Katrina one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history. More than 1,800 people lost their lives because of the storm surge and a famously compromised levy system that caused deadly flooding over 80 percent of New Orleans. The property damage bill for Hurricane Katrina exceeded $100 billion,” according to Morgan & Morgan.

“The Gulf coast was hit with a monster storm in 2005 as Hurricane Katrina barreled in and crushed everything in its path. Katrina tops the list for the costliest natural disaster and third deadliest storm to ever hit the U.S. This storm developed over the Bahamas on Aug. 23 and quickly intensified into Tropical Storm Katrina the very next day,” writes Fox 13 News.

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