Worst Hurricanes in American History (Part I)

Hurricanes of the Early 1900s

September 3, 2019
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.

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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.

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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.

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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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About This Blog

Mike Steinberg is Senior Vice President for Special Initiatives at AccuWeather Inc in State College, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the National Weather Association and the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society.

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