The 10 Worst Natural Disasters in US History | History Hit

The 10 Worst Natural Disasters in US History

Main Street, Johnstown, after the flood.
Image Credit: E. Benjamin Andrews / Public Domain

Natural disasters remain one of mankind’s biggest fears: despite increasing technological advancements, humans remain almost powerless in the face of hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes and wildfires.

The United States has seen more than its fair share of natural disasters which have cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars worth of damage. Here are 10 of the very worst to hit the United States:

1. The Great Galveston hurricane (1900)

The Great Galveston Hurricane began as a somewhat standard tropical cyclone in the Caribbean Sea but by 6 September when it hit Galveston – known as the ‘Wall Street of the Southwest’ – in Texas, it had become a Category 4 hurricane with winds of up to 145mph.

The island of Galveston had not received adequate warnings, nor did they believe they were in danger, having become somewhat complacent from a series of previous storms that had never caused much damage.

As a result, around 1/4 of the island’s population perished and a further 10,000 were left homeless, with every home in the town damaged from the storm. Aid took several days to arrive as the hurricane had downed the telephone wires and destroyed all bridges to the mainland.

It remains the deadliest natural disaster in US history, claiming the lives of between 6,000 and 12,000 people.

2. The worst North American heatwave (1936)

The 1936 heatwave affected the whole of North America, setting record temperatures across the continent. Part of the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s, temperatures exceeding 38°C hit the Midwest in June, and droughts spread across the continent, as far north as Canada and stretching from coast to coast.

Temperatures peaked in July, setting high temperature records which still exist in 13 states today. Harvests were destroyed and the ground was parched, taking years to fully recover.

It’s thought that up to 5,000 people died from heat stroke and exhaustion over the summer. Air conditioning scarcely existed and many of the elderly, particularly those who lived in dense urban areas, struggled to cope. It remains the most destructive and widespread heatwave in American history.

Homestead and farm in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years.

Image Credit: USDA / Public Domain

3. San Ciricao hurricane (1899)

The 1899 San Ciricao hurricane is the longest-lived Atlantic hurricane on record, as well as one of the deadliest. Beginning near the Cape Verde Islands, it made its way westwards, striking multiple Caribbean islands including Guadeloupe, Monserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and finally hitting North Carolina on the mainland.

Although there had been some advance warning, many boats were sunk, most of the buildings on Montserrat were destroyed and Saint Kitts was buffeted by winds of up to 120mph. The worst of the damage was on the island of Puerto Rico: one US Army Major described the hurricane as “more disruptive… than the American invasion of Puerto Rico.”

The hurricane left 250,000 without food, clean water and shelter, with over 3,000 Puerto Ricans dead. Over 23 inches of rain fell in 24 hours in some places and widespread flooding occurred across the island. The hurricane also wiped out many of the year’s crops, including valuable coffee crops, devastating livelihoods further.

It’s thought the hurricane lasted for nearly a month, and the death toll across the areas affected by the hurricane (from the Azores to North Carolina) is estimated to have been just under 4,000.

4. The Great San Francisco earthquake (1906)

The city of San Francisco lies on the San Andreas fault line, a tectonic boundary which means the area is prone to earthquakes. The 1906 earthquake lasted around a minute, and was measured as having a magnitude of approximately 7.9 on the Richter Scale.

The earthquake caused huge amounts of damage to the city, destroying about 80% of it. The official death toll is now recognised to have been around 3,000: originally the number of casualties in Chinatown was not taken into account by official tolls. Well over half of San Francisco’s 400,000 strong population was left homeless.

Much of the damage was compounded by the fires that raged for days afterwards, and untrained fire crews who tried to use dynamite to create firebreaks, but only succeeded in setting fire to more buildings. The army was called in to protect against rioters, looters and to help feed and find shelter for the civilian population.

San Francisco’s officials downplayed the damage done, desperate not to lose business or investment as a result of the earthquake. Reconstruction efforts were largely completed by 1915: an extremely speedy recovery and one which changed the face of the city.

The Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906: Ruins in vicinity of Post and Grant Avenue. Looking northeast.

Image Credit: H. D. Chadwick / Public Domain

5. Hurricane Maria (2017)

Once again, the main impact of the Category 5 Hurricane Maria was felt in the Caribbean, with the damage sustained in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands leading President Trump to declare a major disaster. North Carolina also caught the tail of the hurricane, with power outages and storm surges causing major damage.

The US government faced heavy criticism for its slow response to the disaster. Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, saw 64 deaths in the hurricane itself, followed by well over 2,000 in the aftermath thanks to inadequate response times and a lack of medical facilities on the island.

As such, Hurricane Maria has been recognised as one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit the United States. It is also the third costliest, causing billions of dollars worth of damage.

6. Okeechobee hurricane (1928)

The Okeechobee hurricane also hit Caribbean islands including Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas before arriving in Florida with winds of up to 145mph. Fortunately, timely hurricane warnings had allowed many to evacuate the most vulnerable areas, but over 15,000 households were made homeless and huge numbers of farms and crops were destroyed.

Thanks to above average rainfall that summer, the storm surges proved bigger than predicted, washing away whole houses from their foundations, flooding the area and causing hundreds to drown.

It was noted that the majority of fatalities were black migrant farm workers: white victims were much more likely to find a casket for burial and receive a formal burial service, whilst the majority of the bodies of black victims weren’t identified and simply thrown on funeral pyres or into mass graves.

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7. Johnstown Flood (1889)

The Johnstown Flood occurred after the failure of the South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania. Heavy rainfall in the area led the Conemaugh River, which ran through Johnstown, to swell dangerously, and workers awoke in the early hours of the morning to find water almost overflowing the dam.

Eventually the dam breached, unleashing 14.55 million cubic metres of water which gained speed as it rushed downhill, picking up debris as it did so. Towns in the path of the swell were hit by water travelling at 45mph with swells that rose up to 60ft high. On its way down the valley, the water hit an ironworks, picking up metres of barbed wire as it did so, which proved deadly for those who were faced with it later in the water’s path.

2,208 people perished in the flood, making it the largest loss of civilian life in a disaster at the time. The clean-up operation took years thanks to the sheer quantity of debris, and hundreds of families had been made homeless. Relief efforts, spearheaded by Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, were in place for 5 months and donations to help the survivors and rebuild the area poured in from around the world.

8. Chenière Caminada hurricane (1893)

Also known as the Great October Storm, the Chenière Caminada hurricane destroyed much of the island of Chenière Caminada in Louisiana, killing an estimated 2,000 people. Many of the deaths were attributed to the powerful storm surge, rising up to 16ft, which came with the hurricane.

Approximately half of the island’s population were killed in the hurricane (around 780 people) and many of the crops were completely destroyed, wreaking further devastation on farmers. A large number of ships and schooners which happened to be in Louisiana and Mississippi at the time were also sunk.

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9. The most devastating forest fire (1871)

The Peshtigo Fire is the deadliest forest fire in recorded history, claiming the lives of between 1,500 and 2,500 people in Wisconsin and Michigan and burning through well over 1 million acres of forest.

Unlike many forest fires, the Peshtigo Fire occurred in October. Small fires had been laid to clear forest for construction purposes, but strong winds from an oncoming cold front fanned the flames, quickly sending them spiralling out of control.

Relatively little is known about the fire because it caused the deaths of so many who witnesses it. Flames jumped across the river, meaning there was no escape other than to jump in the river, which was freezing and had fast running currents, meaning many drowned. Records were completely destroyed in the fire and whole communities wiped out. 350 bodies were thrown into a mass grave because there was no one left to identify them.

Despite being so deadly, the Peshtigo Fire has been largely overlooked in American history because it occurred at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire, which killed far less people but had a much more widely felt and reported on impact.

10. Hurricane Katrina (2005)

Hurricane Katrina is best known for the damage it caused in New Orleans, where it flooded 80% of the city thanks to structural issues in the levees around the city which were meant to protect it from exactly these eventualities. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida were also all badly affected.

Over 1 million people were displaced following Katrina: efforts to bring relief to the devastated area and clear up the aftermath took months and years in some places. Further issues were caused by oil spills and difficulty removing floodwater from the affected areas. To date, it remains the costliest natural disaster financially in US history. It’s thought approximately 1,836 people perished in the hurricane, floods and aftermath.

NASA Earth observatory image of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans

Image Credit: Public Domain

Sarah Roller