Worst Hurricanes in American History (Part I)

Hurricanes of the Early 1900s

May 23, 2017
Galveston Hurricane

With the start of hurricane season upon us, let’s look back on some of the worst, most destructive hurricanes that have hit the United States.

This month, we’ll look at five hurricanes from the first half of the 20th century; in coming months, we’ll look at more recent major hurricanes.

Note that it was not until 1953 that Atlantic/Gulf Hurricanes were given women’s names—with men’s names added in 1979—so the earlier storms are known by the region they most affected.

The Galveston Hurricane (1900)

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was the deadliest natural disaster to ever strike the United States, killing at least 8,000 and perhaps as many as 12,000 people. Its complete story is told in Erik Larson’s 1999 best-selling book Isaac’s Storm, which I highly recommend. The storm reached Cuba as a tropical storm on September 3, moved into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on September 5, and rapidly intensified until it hit the Texas coast near Galveston as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 miles per hour on September 8.

Storm tides of 8 to 15 feet inundated Galveston Island, which had little protection from high water, causing most of the storm’s deaths and damage. Although hurricane warnings were issued, the lack of modern technology such as satellites and radar meant that there was not much advance notice for Galveston residents, and many did not heed the warnings that were issued, preferring instead to watch the huge waves.

The devastation caused in Galveston was perhaps the most important reason that the citizens of Harris County, believing that an inland port would better serve the region, approved creation of the modern port of Houston in 1909, thus starting Houston on its path to becoming one of the United States’ largest cities.

Miami Hurricane Damage

The Great Miami Hurricane (1926)

The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 destroyed much of its namesake city when it struck as a Category 4 hurricane in 1926. It killed about 400 people and caused $80 million in damages at the time, but if an identical storm were to hit the same region today, costs would exceed $180 billion—more than double those from Katrina, the costliest U.S. hurricane to date.

As with the Galveston Hurricane, warnings provided little advance notice when they were issued at midnight, only hours before the storm’s landfall in the morning hours.

The storm’s eye passed directly over Miami Beach and downtown Miami, producing the highest sustained winds ever recorded in the United States at the time, 150 mph. Many casualties resulted as people who believed that the storm had ended ventured outdoors during the half-hour lull as the eye passed overhead. They were suddenly trapped and exposed to the eastern half of the hurricane shortly thereafter.

The destruction the storm brought to Florida ended the state’s 1920s land boom and brought the state an early start to the Great Depression.

The Lake Okeechobee Hurricane (1928)

The Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 struck Puerto Rico as a Category 5 hurricane on September 13, causing over 300 deaths and leaving more than 500,000 people homeless. The storm weakened slightly before making landfall near West Palm Beach, Florida, on September 16, bringing winds of 145 mph and destroying more than 1,700 homes.

The hurricane’s impact was most severe around Lake Okeechobee, where the storm surge caused water to pour out of the southern part of the lake, with 10- to 20-foot-high inland waves sweeping away thousands of buildings and drowning at least 2,500 people, making this the second deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Florida Keys Hurricane mass burial. Credit: Miami Monroe County Public Library

The Great Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane (1935)

The Great Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was the third strongest Atlantic hurricane on record and the most intense to ever make landfall in the United States, with a central pressure of 26.34 inches at landfall. The storm formed to the east of the Bahamas on August 29, 1935, became a hurricane on September 1, and then underwent rapid intensification before it struck the Florida Keys on September 2 as a Category 5 storm—one of only three to hit the United States in the 20th century (the other two being hurricanes Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992).

The combination of 185-mph winds and high tides was responsible for 408 deaths in the Florida Keys, primarily among World War I veterans working in the area. The storm also destroyed the railway line that was the main transportation route connecting the Keys to mainland Florida.

New England Hurricane Water Levels at The Old Market House, Providence, RI

The Great New England Hurricane and Long Island Express (1938)

The Great New England Hurricane and Long Island Express of 1938 was only the third hurricane to strike New England since 1635. This 20th-century event was probably the most destructive hurricane in New England history, rivaled or eclipsed in landfall intensity only by the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635.

The weaker western side of the storm brought sustained tropical storm–force winds, high waves, and storm surges along the New Jersey coast, destroying much of the Atlantic City boardwalk. In New York City, Battery Park recorded sustained winds of 70 mph, with 120-mph winds at the top of the Empire State Building.

The storm made landfall on September 21 at Bellport on Long Island as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 120 mph, gusts to 150 mph, and 25- to 35-foot waves. It made a second landfall between Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut, with sustained winds of 115 mph and 18- to 25-foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod.

The hurricane was estimated to have killed 682 people, damaged or destroyed over 57,000 homes, and devastated the forests of the Northeast, knocking down 2 billion trees across New York and New England.

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Learn more about Hurricane forecasts, facts, and common questions.

Reader Comments

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Lake O Hurricane

There has been a lot of news coverage lately about too much fresh water from Lake Okeechobee being directed into the estuary systems on both the east and west coasts of Florida. The water used to flow into the Everglades which reached all the way up to the Lake, but now is some distance south. The levies around Lake O were built to keep flooding like what happened after the 1928 hurricane from happening again, but they created the problem of water from the lake damaging the coastal ecosystems. You're darned if you do and darned if you don't.


Being from South Louisiana, I've heard tons of stories about hurricane Audrey, yet see no mention of it here. I remember my grandparents saying that most of the victims of this storm in the area of Holly Beach died from snakebites as opposed to drowning.

Galveston Storm

Another EXCELLENT book on the Galveston Storm is "A Weekend in September" by John Edward Weems, originally published in 1957. He interviewed survivors and tells their tale in a very vivid way. You finish the book truly feeling you were there. I live near Galveston and try to read it every anniversary of the storm.


Thank you Mary Beth another good book is fiction for the most part but written by John D MacDonald based on a true story it is called Condominium

Hurricane Andrew 1992

Although called a "dry hurricane" Homestead took the eye an left fighter jets rolled over at the base. Homes sucked right off the ground. The complete town of Homestead was left in the dark without water until the our National Guard flew down US 1 landed and provide the town with gallons of water after 3 days. Homestead was the hardest hit from this storm.
God Bless America and all who attended us standing in the streets waving to the jets that we were alive! All forces came to assist and stayed for months to help us .
Hurricane Andrew damaged our homes and all items inside but it made us stronger.

hurricane andrew

my family was in this terrible hurricane they are outside of homestead maybe 1 mile they live in the perrine area. I was able to get that 1 phone call in to make sure they are ok. then last year I was stuck in Irma and Maria how devastating. looking tru the mailboxd slot seeing trees uprooted and flying. saw someone try to drive in tree fell on top of house and they had to flee water was every where,. to see coconuts and the clay roof shingles flying like a deck of cards.what an experience


I think the worst hurricane in my life time was katrina.

Worst hurricane I've ever been through?

I've been through a lot of hurricanes and I remember them all from Ft. Walton Beach, Fl when I was young when we had to evacuate our beachfront house to being in WV when Camille came through to driving I-64 W from Richmond, Va during Ivan (Visibility was about 25 yards in a pouring rain), but the worst hurricane I've ever experienced was while I lived on Okinawa.
The eye of category 5 Typhoon Cathy was 10 miles off the coast and ran up the East side of the island (60 miles long and 7 miles wide at it's widest point) around the North side, down the West side, around the South side, and back up the East side again before going up to Tokyo and causing a great deal of damage to Tokyo. We were trapped in our house for a week and luckily all of the houses have heavy shutters and we had enough food and water stored up to last two weeks. Thank God for Coleman stoves.
Being from Fl, some friends and I made a bet that the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes probably hunkered down among the Palmettos to endure a hurricane. I don't know if you are familiar with Palmettos, but they grow very thick.
The plan was to wait until a hurricane was forecast to come through the Orlando area and two of us would camp in two tents in a very thick Palmetto thicket so that nobody could say that I didn't do it.
Our tents sloughed off a lot of rain and we could see that the tops of the Palmettos were whipping pretty badly in a category two hurricane, but we felt very little wind at ground level with no damage to us or our tents.
A few weeks later, we got a chance to do it again, same place, same experiences, same type of category two hurricane with one exception, the wind broke an old dead pine tree and flung it to within 4 feet to the right of my tent from about 50 yards away.
I proved my point not once, but twice and we decided that the pine tree proved that even category two hurricanes are dangerous and that I'd never do something like that again.

Hurricane Iniki

Hi Bill. I surely can believe how bad that storm must have been. My H.S. surfing buddy and I, from Houston, saw many a storm, even Carla in 1961. My buddy moved to Kauai when she left H.S., married a local there, and settled in the mountains on Kauai. In the past numerous decades, virtually all the storms turned north well before reaching the outer islands, but as my friend watched, Hurricane Iniki didn't look like it was going to make that turn. Knowing how bad a Cat 4 or 5 could be, she went to a spot where one could look out over the entire island to the south. She told me she'd never seen a black sky in the distance as she saw that day; completely black. She hurried home to get prepped, and her relatives weren't really with the program; they'd never seen such a storm in their lifetime, and had no experience to guide them. After watching my friend prepping constantly, the family pitched in, I think just to placate her... And then, the storm began to hit. (Kauai, and most of Hawaii are made of single-walled homes, so, might as well be a match stick.) The sister-in-law became so frightened, she went into shock, and sat on the floor shaking. My friend got everyone into an inner closet with mattresses, and for hours, they listened to a goodly portion of the home(s) get broken up. The entire time, sister-in-law was in shock, and some others very close to it. For over 2 weeks after the storm, they had to stand in line for water and food, and my friend swears she will never be unprepared again. You must understand that no storm watch or warning was issued until less than 24 hours before Iniki hit. If my friend hadn't gotten to work at least a day sooner than that, her family would likely have come close to perishing. Iniki wasn't the costliest, or the deadliest storm to hit U.S. soil, but it sure tore the hell out of the tourist spots, and celebrity homes on the island; a part of the storm for which the locals were actually grateful. Hence, the Edmund Burke quote applies here, "Those who CANNOT remember the past are condemned to repeat it". This is why humanity, throughout the generations, keeps making the same mistakes. There's nobody left alive from previous generations who have experienced many of the warning signs that precede various events, and know what the outcomes will be, or how to prepare for them.

Florida hurricanes

What a terrific story. Thank you for sharing it.


All great stories and ones that should be repeated yearly!! Some people believe, "it won't happen here" or to them.
I don't live near any weather related annual weather event areas, but I do live on and near earthquake faults. I save water and have stored food "just in case", then; there's the SHTF scenario. It's comforting to be prepared.

hurricane carla

everyone never mentions hurricane Carla in 1961


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