Natural disasters can cause a devastating amount of fatalities and damages. Natural disasters are events that result from the earth’s natural processes gone horribly wrong. These events include firestorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, storms, floods, and more.
Natural disasters have claimed millions of lives and forever changed communities worldwide for centuries. Here’s a look at the ten most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history.
In 1900, Galveston was the largest port city in Texas. The city was a wonder to behold, including some of the country’s first electric streetlights and millionaires’ mansions. Unfortunately, it was also the landfall site of the nation’s deadliest hurricane to date.
The unnamed hurricane slammed into the port city at 140 miles per hour. The storm surged through the small town, tearing off trolley tracks and ripping through around 7,000 buildings, causing an estimated $28,000,000 in damages.
Before the storm, the city had an estimated population of approximately 37,000 residents. Unfortunately, the hurricane claimed the lives of between 6,000 and 12,000 people, becoming the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.
One of the most harrowing of the many tragedies caused by the storm involves the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum. The orphanage was home to 93 children and ten nuns, but the storm took the lives of all but three of the children.
In 1906, an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.9 struck San Francisco, California. The earthquake was so intense that tremors could be felt from Eureka to the Salinas Valley, and a 296-mile fissure was torn along the San Andreas fault.
The earthquake only lasted around a minute, but it was only the beginning of this devastating disaster. The quake broke multiple gas lines, and hundreds of fires roared throughout the city.
To make matters worse, the earthquake had ruptured pipes, making it impossible for firefighters to put out all of the fires that spread and consumed almost 500 city blocks within three days.
When the fires finally stopped, 28,000 buildings within the city had been destroyed, and more than 3,000 people had been lost. Over 200,000 of San Francisco’s surviving residents were left homeless by the devastation for months.
Flooding doesn’t usually happen in Pennsylvania, but in 1889, days of extremely heavy rainfall caused catastrophic failure to the South Fork Dam.
As the dam ruptured, it released 20 million tons of water, creating a 40-foot high wall that came down upon the small town of Johnstown. In a few short minutes, the floodwaters had destroyed 1,600 homes and took the lives of 2,209 residents, including 99 whole families.
In addition to the severity of the initial flooding, debris formed a temporary dam at the Stone Bridge, and that debris ultimately caught fire. Many residents became trapped by the debris, and at least 80 of them perished at the bridge.
Eventually, gravity caused the flood water to strike the city for a second time, but from a different direction, causing further devastation.
The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 occurred on the same day as the famous Great Chicago Fire, but while less known, it was far deadlier. In fact, it went on to become the deadliest fire within the United States.
Many factors caused the deadly fire. It was common to set small controlled fires to clear forest land for railroad construction and farming. However, the controlled fires swiftly grew out of control near Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on October 8th, 1871. A cold front had moved in, and with it, strong winds that fanned the flames through 1.5 million acres of tinder-dry land that had been plagued by drought. The fire grew into tornado-like columns, and the heat of the fires became so hot that the sand on the Peshtigo streets was turned to glass. All in all, the firestorm caused an estimated 1,200 to 2,500 deaths.
Hurricanes are among the most common natural disasters worldwide, but that doesn’t make them less devastating. In 2017, Hurricane Maria became a Category 4 storm before tearing through Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Maria was one of the economically devastating hurricanes in U.S. history, with an estimated $94,500,000,000 in damages. It’s estimated that the storm took the lives of 2,982 people. Additionally, the island’s water system was severely damaged by both Maria and Hurricane Irma just two weeks prior. Hurricane Maria also leveled Puerto Rico’s power grid, leaving all of the 3.4 million residents without access to electricity, with some areas without power for four to six months.
Hurricane Okeechobee hurricane was the third deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. This devastating hurricane struck Florida and hit Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, and the islands of Nevis, Montserrat, and Martinique.
The storm made landfall near West Palm Beach, Florida, on September 17th of 1928. The most severe damage from this natural disaster was around the Lake Okeechobee area, where hundreds of square miles were swept beneath waters as high as 20 feet. Buildings and houses were destroyed and caught in the current, with damages reaching around $25 million.
In addition to structural loss, it’s estimated that at least 2,500 people drowned. After striking Florida, the hurricane curved and made a second landfall near Edisto Island, South Carolina. All in all, this natural disaster left $100 million in damages and took the lives of at least 4,112 people.
Hurricane Katrina was one of the most memorable hurricanes in U.S. history, with about $125 billion in damages and 1,800 fatalities. Katrina started as a tropical storm heading towards Florida but strengthened into a hurricane just two hours before landfall. While the storm damaged landfall cities, it weakened to a tropical storm over southern Florida.
However, Hurricane Katrina began to unexpectedly and rapidly gain intensity over the Gulf of Mexico. It became a Category 5 hurricane before weakening into a Category 3 hurricane before making its second landfall in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Unfortunately, New Orleans and surrounding areas had fatal engineering flaws that caused massive flooding, with 80 percent of the city remaining beneath the waters for weeks. As a result, tens of thousands of people were left stranded without adequate access to food, water, or shelter. In addition to massive structural damage, Hurricane Katrina was responsible for the loss of thousands of lives.
The 1936 North American heat wave was not only deadly, but it was also ill-timed. It occurred in the middle of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression where Americans were already experiencing economic suffering.
The heat wave was so intense that it set record high temperatures across the United States, with 13 of those state records still holding today. That year, temperatures across the Midwest exceeded 100 degrees, worsening pre-existing drought conditions and causing significant amounts of crops to be destroyed. Many states experienced these high temperatures for 18 consecutive days. In addition to the loss of crops, there were 5,000 heat-related deaths reported.
In 1893, a deadly Category 3 hurricane made landfall on the Sea Islands near Savannah, Georgia. The storm caused large amounts of destruction along the coastline before moving into South Carolina, where it’s believed that the hurricane may have intensified to Category 4 or Category 5.
The structural damage to homes and businesses was catastrophic, with estimates as high as $1 million (the equivalent of $29 million in 2020). The storm was responsible for between 1,000 and 2,000 lives lost, and the overwhelming damage required a 10-month relief campaign for residents to have decent housing again.
In 1918, northern Minnesota was devastated by forest fires that spread because of dry conditions and railroad sparks. The fire swiftly became the deadliest natural disaster in Minnesota as it claimed the lives of 453 people. In addition, 52,000 people were either injured or displaced, and the flames destroyed 38 communities.
The raging fire burned across 250,000 acres and cost the state roughly $73 million in damages. Cloquet suffered the most significant damage from the fire, but losses and damages also hit the Moose Lake and Kettle River areas.