Though the monetary damage from hurricanes keeps rising over the years to where virtually all of the costliest hurricanes have been very recent, this is not true of hurricane death tolls. Hurricane Katrina was an exception to the rule that the vast majority of killer hurricanes in United States history are deep in the past.
Why? No doubt there are many factors. Building codes are stricter than they were, say, a century ago, so fewer buildings collapse on people. There is 24 hour news with more accurate than ever forecasts about the strength and path of a hurricane, so hurricanes rarely “sneak up” on a region any more – people can prepare. People in modern times are more mobile and better able to evacuate if need be.
But whatever the reason, you’ll notice that most of the storms on this list of the ten hurricanes that have killed the most people in U.S. history are from long ago:
Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana
After punishing the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands, this hurricane made landfall between Miami and Coral Gables, Florida on September 18. Casualties in the area were especially bad due to so many of the inhabitants being new to the coastal area and lacking experience with hurricanes. Many deaths occurred when people emerged from shelter, in some cases seeking to leave the area, during the brief lull when the eye of the storm passed over the coast, which meant the rear end of the storm struck when they were vulnerable. The storm then crossed over Florida, causing flooding and significant casualties in the Lake Okeechobee area that would be devastated far worse just two years later (see below), before regaining some of its strength over the Gulf of Mexico and then making another landfall near Mobile, Alabama and causing additional substantial damage to the Florida panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
The Miami area of southern Florida was very early in its growth stage at the time – Miami had a population of just 42,753 in the 1920 census – so nothing like the area as it is now. Experts contend that a hurricane of this strength following this same path today would rival those at the top of this list for the most destructive hurricane in American history.
Hurricane Audrey made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border on June 27. Its highest winds can only be estimated, but a wind gauge in Lake Charles broke when it surpassed 180 MPH. The storm spawned 23 tornadoes. Some estimates put the death toll well into the 400s, which would raise it to perhaps seventh on this list.
What made the impact of Audrey worse than it otherwise might have been is that it underwent a rare speed surge in the Gulf of Mexico. Communities that had been warned by forecasters to expect landfall in three to four days, suddenly found the storm pounding them less than 24 hours later. Preparations and evacuation were therefore inadequate.
Last Island Hurricane
The first hurricane of the 1856 season, estimates of the strength of this storm peg it as at least a Category 4, and possibly even a Category 5. The hurricane made landfall in Louisiana on August 10. Every building in the town of Abbeville was destroyed, much of Plaquemines Parish experienced severe flooding, and New Orleans received over 13 inches of rain.
The greatest devastation was reserved, however, for Last Island, a popular resort destination for tourists, that basically ceased to exist. The entire island was submerged for several days. Eventually a few of the higher areas reemerged as sandbars as the sea level dropped, but all signs of human habitation had been wiped away.
Great Labor Day Hurricane
Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia
A rare instance of a hurricane being at Category 5 strength upon landfall, this was the third strongest hurricane to strike the U.S. in recorded history.
Moving east to west, the storm first skirted along southern Florida, walloping the Floria Keys. It turned northward in the gulf, moving parallel to the west coast of Florida. It then curved toward the northeast, making landfall again in Florida, and then punishing Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia as it gradually dropped to a tropical storm before returning to the Atlantic to die.
Savannah and Augusta Hurricane
Georgia, South Carolina
Making landfall on August 27th in Georgia near the South Carolina border, this hurricane did the bulk of its damage in and around the coastal Georgia cities of Savannah and Augusta. Several barriers islands were completely submerged by the storm surge.
Sea Islands Hurricane
South Carolina, Georgia
The Sea Islands Hurricane struck on August 27, 1893, devastating the Savannah, Georgia area, and especially the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.
Part of the reason this hurricane caused so many casualties was horrible timing. Relief and rescue efforts were slow to get going due to the fact that so many resources were devoted to recovering from a hurricane that had landed in South Carolina in June. The Red Cross did not even start serious operations in the area until October 1. Then on October 13, yet another Category 3 hurricane struck South Carolina, further complicating things.
The true death toll from this storm is difficult to estimate, since the area of the hurricane was heavily populated by African American and poor people, and with the haphazard record keeping of 1893 even more than today, such people could live and die with little official recognition. The actual death toll is likely closer to the high end than the low end of the official 1,000-2,000 estimate range, if not even more. Which would bump this hurricane up to 4th or 3rd on this list.
Cheniere Caminanda Hurricane
1893 was a terrible year for hurricanes in the U.S. On October 2, the village of Cheniere Caminanda, Louisiana, near Grand Isle, was all but wiped out by hurricane winds as high as 135 MPH, and a 16 foot storm surge. Approximately half of the residents died in the storm.
Much of southeast Louisiana was left flooded; the local orange and rice crops sustained much damage.
Just as with the Sea Islands Hurricane, record keeping in poor and African American areas in the South in 1893 was far from perfect, so there’s a good chance the death toll is understated. Some estimates put the number of dead closer to 2,000 than the official 1,100-1,400 estimate range.
Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida
Katrina is certainly well known to even readers who have heard of few if any of the other storms on this list, as it’s the only one to have struck in most of their lifetimes. Of the top 28 deadliest hurricanes, in fact, it is the only one that has occurred since 1972.
At Category 3, Katrina was not even an unusually strong hurricane. The main reason it wreaked such havoc is that it struck a major city, New Orleans, that was criminally unprepared. (New Orleans was not the only area affected certainly. Approximately 250 of the 1,833 confirmed deaths occurred outside of Louisiana entirely, mostly in Mississippi.) On August 29, the city’s inadequate levee system was breached by the storm surge, flooding 80% of the city.
Lake Okeechobee Hurricane
After having already caused devastation in parts of the Caribbean, the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane made landfall in Florida on the night of September 16/morning of September 17, 1928. It did significant damage in the coastal region in Palm Beach County, but had a catastrophic impact a little farther inland when it reached Lake Okeechobee, thoroughly flooding the well-populated area.
An estimated 75% of the casualties were poor migrant farm workers, meaning once again the death toll is largely a guess, and more likely too low than too high. Some estimates of the true death count run as high as 6,000. 1,600 bodies were buried in just one mass grave in the area in Port Mayaca.
Great Galveston Hurricane
On September 8, 1900, a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 135 MPH made landfall in the Galveston, Texas area, on the Gulf Coast. It became the deadliest natural disaster in American history.
Galveston lies on an island just off the Texas coast. In 1900 the highest building was less than nine feet above sea level. The hurricane brought with it a storm surge of fifteen feet. It wiped out the bridges to the mainland, cutting off escape and rescue routes. Nearly 20% of the city’s 42,000 residents were killed.
Nature’s fury is in full evidence during a hurricane. Thousands of people died, and countless others had their lives forever changed, by these ten killer storms.