15 Worst Natural Disasters in the History of the United States

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15 Worst Natural Disasters in the History of United States

Natural disasters are unpredictable, deadly, and destructive. One cannot foretell the amount of loss that it may cause. ScienceStruck describes the worst natural disasters that have occurred in the United States.

Did You Know?

Hurricane Katrina, with an estimated damage of USD 108 billion, was the costliest natural disaster to have occurred in the United States. It was also one of the deadliest disasters, having killed 1,833 people.

Over the years, the United States has witnessed numerous disasters, both man-made and natural. Although the man-made disasters are equally destructive, it is the rage of Mother Nature that sends chills down our spine. These massive tragedies claim thousands of lives, wipe out entire cities, cost billions of dollars, and leave millions of families devastated.

The natural disasters strike us in the form of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, droughts, etc. Although it is very difficult to claim the deadliest ones, here are the worst of the lot based on their intensity, loss of lives, and cost of property damage caused due to these disasters.



The 1994 Northridge Earthquake

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake

Date: January 17, 1994
Deaths: 57
Damage: USD 23 billion
Areas affected: Greater Los Angeles

The Northridge earthquake first hit the San Fernando Valley of Los Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, California on January 17, 1994 at 4.31 am. The magnitude of the earthquake was very strong (6.7 Mw), and was felt up to 220 miles of the epicenter. Along with San Fernando, the cities of Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, and Simi Valley were also largely affected.

The peak ground velocity of the quake was 4.09 mph, which was the fastest one ever recorded. The earthquake lasted about 10 – 20 seconds, in addition to which two aftershocks occurred. The massive earthquake caused a loss of 57 lives, and injured more than 8,700 people. The estimated damage was USD 23 billion.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Date: April 18, 1906
Deaths: 3,000
Damage: USD 400 million
Areas affected: Greater Los Angeles

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake hit the coast of Northern California and San Francisco, on April 18, 1906 at 5.12 am. The epicenter of the earthquake was 2 miles from San Francisco, near Mussel Rock. The magnitude of the earthquake was 7.8 Mw and its impact was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles. The main shock of the earthquake lasted for 42 seconds.

It destroyed 80% of San Francisco, most of the Bay Area, and the nearby cities of Santa Rosa and San Jose. After the quake, enormous fires broke out in San Francisco. Within three days of the quake, over 30 fires had broken out, destroying 25,000 buildings in the city. Since the water mains were also broken, there were few resources to extinguish the fire―the reason why it lasted several days. As many as 3,000 people were killed and 300,000 were left homeless as a result of the earthquake and the subsequent fires. The estimated damage caused at the time was USD 400 million.


Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina

Date: August 29, 2005
Deaths: 1,833
Damage: USD 108 billion
Areas affected: South Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Bahamas, Alabama, Cuba, eastern North America

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most deadliest as well as costliest natural disasters to hit the US soil. Hurricane Katrina first formed over Bahamas on August 3, 2005 as a Category 1 hurricane, and strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico.

It ultimately hit southeast Louisiana as a Category 3 hurricane on August 29, 2005. The highest wind velocity of the hurricane was 175 mph. Around 1,833 people died in the hurricane and the subsequent floods, making it one of the worst natural disasters of the US. The hurricane caused a lot of destruction to Florida, Cuba, Mississippi, Louisiana, southeast USA, as well as Canada. It caused an estimated damage of USD 108 billion, the costliest one on record.

The New England Hurricane of 1938

Date: September 21, 1938
Deaths: Around 800
Damage: USD 306 million
Areas affected: Bahamas, Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, southwestern Quebec

The Great New England Hurricane formed near the coast of Africa, and made its landfall on Long Island on September 21 as a Category 3 hurricane. It was centered 100 miles east of Cape Hatteras, with a forward speed of 50 mph.

The highest recorded wind velocity of the hurricane was 160 mph. Around 800 people were killed due to the hurricane, and 708 were left injured. The hurricane also damaged a total of 4,500 cottages, 25,000 homes, 26,000 automobiles, and 20,000 electric poles. The hurricane caused a damage of around USD 306 million.

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900

Date: September 8, 1900
Deaths: 6,000 – 12,000
Damage: USD 20 million
Areas affected: Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Jamaica, Cuba, Turks and Caicos Islands, Bahamas, Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Florida, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Eastern Canada

The Hurricane of 1900 made its landfall on September 8, 1900 as a Category 4 hurricane with a wind velocity of 145 mph.

The hurricane was first detected on August 27, over the Atlantic Ocean, after which it reached Cuba as a tropical storm on September 3. It then moved into the Gulf of Mexico on September 5, before it finally made its landfall on September 8.

The hurricane caused major destruction to Midwest, New York City, and Galveston. At the time of the hurricane, the highest point in the city of Galveston was 2.7 m above sea level. The hurricane, which caused a storm surge above 4.6 m, washed out the entire island. Due to this, around 20% of the population of the island was killed and over 3,600 homes in the city were destroyed. The highest measured speed of the winds of the hurricane was 145 mph. The hurricane caused a damage of USD 20 million at that time.

Hurricane Sandy

Date: October 25, 2012
Deaths: 285
Damage: USD 68 billion
Areas affected: Bahamas, Greater Antilles, Bermuda, eastern Canada, eastern United States

Hurricane Sandy, also known as the Superstorm Sandy, was a Category 3 hurricane that first hit Cuba on October 25. It had first formed over the western Caribbean Sea on October 22, and gradually strengthened as it moved toward Greater Antilles.

On October 24, it became a hurricane, and made its landfall in Jamaica, before it hit Cuba. It then weakened to a Category 1 and moved to Bahamas on October 26. After killing 285 people, and causing severe destruction to USA, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, and Canada, Hurricane Sandy finally dissipated on November 2, 2012. The highest wind velocity recorded during the hurricane was 115 mph. The hurricane destroyed thousands of homes, blew off various buildings, and left millions homeless. It caused a property damage of USD 68 billion, which is the second-costliest hurricane in the history of the US.


The Great Tri-State Tornado

The Great Tri-State Tornado

Date: March 18, 1925
Deaths: 695
Damage: USD 1.4 billion
Areas affected: Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana

The Great Tri-State Tornado was the deadliest one of the 12 tornadoes that hit the Midwestern and Southern U.S. on March 18, 1925. The tornado alone killed 695 people, making it worse than the second deadliest, the 1840 Great Natchez Tornado, in the history of the US.

The tornado rode for 3.5 hours on a 219-mile track, which was the longest single track to be recorded. It greatly damaged the areas of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, destroying numerous homes and buildings along its path. In all, 695 people were killed and 2,027 were injured due to the tornado. Approximately 15,000 homes were destroyed, and the tornado caused an estimated damage of USD 1.4 billion.

The 2011 Joplin Tornado

Date: May 22, 2011
Deaths: 158
Damage: USD 2.8 billion
Areas affected: Joplin, Jasper County, and Newton County

The Joplin Tornado was a massive catastrophic EF5 multiple-vortex tornado that struck the US on May 22, 2011. The tornado first developed to the east of Kansas, at 5.34 pm at EF0 intensity. It strengthened into a EF1 intensity and hit the rural areas near Joplin, Missouri.

It finally hit the southwest corner of Joplin near the Twin Hills Country Club at the intensities of EF1 and EF2. It continued to strengthen, and destroyed several homes in the city, with the intensity increasing up to EF5. The total track length of the tornado was 22.1 miles. Overall, it killed 158 people and injured 1,150 others. The tornado destroyed 6,954 homes, and damaged 875 homes. The estimated damage caused by the tornado was USD 2.8 billion. This tornado was the deadliest one to hit the US after the 1947 Glazier-Higgins-Woodward tornadoes.


The 2011 Mississippi River Floods

The 2011 Mississippi River Floods

Date: May 04, 2011 – June 20, 2011
Deaths: Around 400 (in the flood as well as preceding storms)
Damage: USD 4 billion
Areas affected: Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana

The devastating floods that took place in the Mississippi River basin in 2011 caused the maximum damage ever recorded. It was a series of events in which severe storms affected the areas along with numerous tornadoes before it started flooding.

It was said to be one of the worst monsoon seasons faced by the United States. The first areas to be affected were Missouri and Illinois around May 3, and consequently the flood waters spread to Arkansas and Tennessee around May 10. When the flood waters reached Mississippi, maximum property damage had already been caused. The water flow measured was found out to be 2,310,000 cubic feet per second, which was greater than what was estimated during the 1927 Great Mississippi River Flood. This disaster had a large effect on the economy of the US and cost an estimated USD 4 billion.

The Johnstown Flood

Date: May 31, 1889
Deaths: 2,209
Damage: USD 17 million
Areas affected: Johnstown, East Conemaugh, South Fork

The Johnstown Flood or The Great Flood of 1889, hit Johnstown, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1889. The disaster occurred as a result of heavy rains and a catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River, situated 14 miles away from the town.

The dam, which was built in 1881 by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, was in desperate need for repair by 1889. However, this was neglected by the club officials, which caused the dam to break down, when heavy rainfalls hit the town on May 31. The dam completely washed down as 20 million tons of water from the Lake Conemaugh roared down the valley toward Johnstown.

On its 14-mile path to Johnstown, the deluge accumulated debris of houses, trees, cars, animals, and people. By the time it reached Johnstown, it was nothing but a 30-feet high rolling hill of debris, which had drowned 2,000 people with it. Around 80 survivors died when the debris piled 40 ft high and caught fire at the Old Stone Bridge. A total of 2,209 people were killed because of the disaster. The estimated damage caused by the flood was USD 17 million.


The 2009 Samoa Earthquake

The 2009 Samoa Earthquake

Date: September 29, 2009
Deaths: 189
Damage: USD 17 million
Areas affected: Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands, New Zealand, French Polynesia

The 8.1 Mw, 2009 Samoa earthquake, hit the Samoan Islands on September 29, 2011. As a result of the earthquake, a 15 ft tsunami was generated, which killed a total of 189 people in Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga.

A 3-inch rise in the sea levels was recorded by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center near the epicenter. The earthquake occurred in the Kermadec-Tonga Subduction Zone, which is a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire where volcanic activities are common. Four 20 ft high tsunami waves hit American Samoa, thus causing immense damage to the natural reserves, wiping out a beach village, and leaving thousands injured and homeless. Samoa avoided numerous deaths by moving most of its island population to a higher ground. However, twenty villages on Upolu island were completely wiped out, leaving an estimated 3,000 people homeless. A 13 ft high wave which hit Tonga killed 10 people and left around 192 families homeless. The tsunami caused an estimated damage of USD 17 million.

The 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake

Date: May 22, 1960
Deaths: 61 (total 6,000 due to the quake)
Damage: USD 17 million
Areas affected: US, Argentina, Chile, Japan, Philippines

The Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960, with a magnitude of 9.5 Mw was the most powerful earthquake that was ever recorded. The tsunami that resulted due to the earthquake caused huge destruction to US, Argentina, Chile, Japan, Philippines, eastern New Zealand, southeast Australia, and the Aleutian Islands.

The tremors of the earthquake caused tsunamis with waves up to 82 ft. The impact of the quake was so high that waves as high as 35 ft were recorded in Japan and Philippines, 10,000 kilometers away from the epicenter. The main tsunami crossed the Pacific Ocean with an immense speed, thus devastating Hilo, Hawaii, and killing 61 people. Apart from the tsunami, the earthquake, also triggered the Riñihuazo flood, eruption of Cordón Caulle eruption, numerous landslides, as well as a seiche. In all, the quake caused up to 6,000 casualties and an estimated damage of up to USD 800 million.


The Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl

Date: 1930s
Deaths: 7,000 approx.
Areas affected: Great Plains, Nebraska

The Dust Bowl was a series of dust storms that struck the Great Plains in the 1930s. It was caused as a result of severe drought and failure to prevent wind erosion. The drought came in three waves – first in 1934, then 1936, and again between 1939 and 1940. The drought affected 100,000,000 acres of land in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado.

The storms destroyed hundreds of houses. More than 500,000 Americans were left homeless. Numerous families were forced to leave their farms and migrate to other areas. Over 86,000 people moved out of the Great Plains states and moved to California in less than a year. It was the largest migration in American history in such a short span. Up to 500 residents of the Plains fell ill and died as a result of dust pneumonia and malnutrition. The disaster killed approximately 7,000 people.

The Year Without a Summer

Date: April, 1815
Deaths: 90,000 (total deaths due to the volcano)
Areas affected: Northeastern US, eastern Canada

Severe climate abnormalities caused the global temperatures in summer to decrease by 0.7 – 1.3°F in the year 1816, making it a year with no summer. The lack of sunlight became very severe, thus resulting into loss of crops and major food shortage in the Northern Hemisphere.

It caused persistent rainfall in Europe, endless snowstorms in England and Ohio, and a prolonged drought in the eastern US. The cause of this disaster was the massive eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815. The eruption had built up an enormous amount of dust, due to which less sunlight passed through the stratosphere, resulting into a temperature drop worldwide. The famine largely affected various areas in North America, Europe, and Asia.

The loss of crops, the cool temperatures, the heavy rainfalls, and dramatic temperature swings caused starvation, malnutrition, and an increased fatality rate. The food prices shot up, and thousands of people were left begging for food. This gave rise to various arsons, riots, and loots in the affected areas. Due to the famine, a major typhus epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819 in Ireland, whereas India was affected by cholera due to late torrential rains. The volcano, due to its various aftereffects, killed 90,000 people in all.

The Great Blizzard of 1888

Date: March, 1888
Deaths: 400
Damage: USD 25 million
Areas affected: New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut

The Great Blizzard of 1888, that hit the Mid-Atlantic coast in March 1888, was the most disastrous blizzard in the history of the US. The storm that had formed on March 11, continued to produce severe winds till March 14. The wind velocity of the blizzard was more than 45 miles per hour, keeping people confined to their houses for several days.

As much as 50 inches of snow was dumped in Connecticut and New Jersey, whereas New York and Vermont had a snow of up to 40 inches and 30 inches, respectively. The storm generated severe winds in New York which had a velocity of 80 mph. The storm completely froze the Atlantic provinces of Canada and the East Coast, from Chesapeake Bay to Maine. The telegraph infrastructure was completely disabled as a result of which the northeastern US cities from Washington, D.C. to Boston were in complete isolation. Neither rail nor road transport was available for several weeks. Almost 200 ships were wrecked due to the storm, resulting in the death of up to 100 seamen. Various fires broke out in New York, the loss from which was around USD 25 million. More than 400 people were killed due to the storm and the resulting cold.

Most of the time, natural disasters are, in fact, man-made disasters, which occur as a result of exploitation of the environment. So, when it comes to preventing such incidents, taking suitable measures to protect our environment becomes the only and primary solution.

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