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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.
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.
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.