Tracking the High Costs of Hurricanes

Deadliest Hurricanes and Costliest Hurricanes in U.S. History

Hurricane Harvey, Texas, 2017

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I recently went to Florida to visit my sister and saw damage from Hurricane Irma—mostly downed or damaged palm trees. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season does not end until Nov. 30, but four major hurricanes of Category 3 or greater have already occurred. Let’s see how the 2017 season compares with the worst hurricanes in recorded history.

Keep in mind that since the advent of satellite images in the late 1960s, we have known about every tropical storm and hurricane that forms—no more surprises like the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which was not forecast until it was almost on top of Galveston.

Since 1900, the U.S. National Hurricane Center has tracked the fatalities and damages brought by hurricanes and tropical storms to the U.S. mainland. The figures in the tables here include only the storms that mainly affected the U.S.,  so the effects in the Caribbean, Mexico, and other locations are not included.

All numbers in the two charts here are taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and/or hurricanescience.org. Economic damage estimates reflect direct property damage only, not indirect damage like lost productivity or increased fuel prices.

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Top 15 Deadliest Hurricanes, Mainland U.S., 1900–Present

With 135 deaths thus far, the 2017 hurricane season has been the 14th deadliest since 1900. Table 1 above shows the 15 years with the most deaths in the mainland U.S. from Atlantic hurricanes. The 1900 Galveston hurricane, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, killed about 8,000 people and spurred the development of more protected Houston as a major city. Although Houston is not as vulnerable as Galveston (especially to wave and tidal flooding), Harvey’s stall above the city brought the heaviest rainfall ever recorded from one storm in the continental U.S., with more than 50 inches of rain in some Houston-area locations.

The second deadliest U.S. tropical storm occurred in 1928, when an estimated 2,500 people drowned after Florida’s Lake Okeechobee overflowed with 10- to 15-foot floods as the result of a Category 4 hurricane.

The 10 deadliest hurricane seasons include only two from within the past 60 years, one of these being 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed the levees in New Orleans and ended up killing almost 2,000 people.

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Top 15 Costliest Hurricanes, Mainland U.S., 1900–Present

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are estimated to have cost the U.S. between $150 billion and $200 billion in combined property damage, according to Moody’s Analytics. The higher figure would make this season the second costliest to date, just behind 2005, when Hurricanes Cindy, Dennis, Katrina, and three other storms left behind $211 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center. And any upward change in this estimate or additional storms could still place 2017 as the costliest Atlantic hurricane season ever.

All values in Table 2 above are inflation-adjusted to reflect the damage in current dollars. Although improvements in warnings in recent years have brought substantial reductions in deaths, increased building (especially in vulnerable coastal areas) has resulted in increased damages in recent years, with three of the six highest totals having occurred within the past 13 years.

See more about the worst hurricanes in U.S. history—from the first half of the 20th century and the second half of the 20th century as well as the 5 most recent notable hurricanes.

 

~ By  Michael Steinberg

Reader Comments

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What about Puerto Rico?

Reports are now coming out that over 900 people have been cremated in the country in the weeks following the hurricane. The US Government is not counting them because no coroner was available to certify the deaths. The 900 far exceeds the number of cremations normally done in a similar time frame. People are dying of disease, Starvation and other post storm related malaise. How will you count them in?

What about Puerto Rico?

Hi, Beth, As noted in the article above, the statistics cited are from the US National Hurricane Center, which tracks fatalities and damage brought by hurricanes and tropical storms to the U.S. mainland. These figures only include the mainland U.S., so the effects in the Caribbean, Mexico, and other locations are not included. You make an excellent point; the fatalities and damage on Puerto Rico deserve recognition and respect. To that end, the matter and question should be put to the Center as the source of this information.

Costliest in perspective

Thanks for giving us inflation adjusted costs and for pointing out that coastlines were not as populated as they are today so everyone would expect higher damage amounts. It is also nice that the advent of satellite tracking is pointed out since most reports just say EVER and do not say EVER starts in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Maybe in another 100 years we can see if there is a pattern forming. It would also be interesting to see where we were in the Sun spot cycle as compared to the early 1900s. And yes, I know Alexa and Google could tell us that. But we know more and can observe more now and we will know even more in 100 years.

misleading

The damage in Florida is not just "mostly downed or damaged palm trees". We in the Florida Keys have sustained major damage to homes and many people are homeless. The beginning of the article is very misleading whereas it should have stated what part of Florida was just "mostly downed or damaged palm trees".

Hurricane damage in Florida

I do recognize that there was major damage in some parts of Florida—for example, my brother-in-law had substantial damage to his apartment in the Tampa area—and I apologize for my unclear writing. When I wrote: “I recently went to Florida to visit my sister and saw damage from Hurricane Irma—mostly downed or damaged palm trees”—I was referring to the damage I saw in the area where my sister lives, Boca Raton, and not to the greater damage in other parts of Florida.  –Mike