Our civilizations are impressive in a relative way, but every now and then Mother Nature comes around to show us how minuscule our achievements are in the face of the elements. Throughout US history, severe storms from hurricanes to tornadoes have caused billions of dollars in damage and claimed thousands of lives. Today, we’re looking at some of the most extreme storms to ever hit the United States.
When you think of “devastating storm,” one of the first images you normally call to mind is the destruction and flooding of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This 2004 storm impacted a historically poor area, populated by families who could hardly afford to repair the damage from the unprecedented storm. Images of flooded streets and destroyed homes were common in the aftermath of this grisly storm.
The Natchez tornado hit the banks of the Mississippi River on May 6, 1840, ripping across docks and sinking ships that were on the river. In the official death toll, some 317 people were killed. However, historians have noted that number could be higher, as there’s a possibility that the official death toll didn’t include slaves who may have died in the storm.
In 1993, a massive snowstorm dubbed by many as the “Storm of the Century” dumped snow all over the Eastern US. The storm famously had an interior pressure identical to a Category 3 hurricane, spawning tornados as it blasted the US with freezing precipitation. Over 270 people died due to the great storm.
Known as the “Great Miami Hurricane” colloquially, this historic storm caused damage all along Southern Florida in 1926. The Category 4 storm didn’t stop there, though, moving along the Gulf Coast and damaging Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. According to historical records, over 370 people died in the storm, making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in US history.
The destructive Tupelo Tornado hit Northeastern Mississippi on April 6, 1936, killing some 216 people and injuring over 700 more. Notably, the storm caused immense damage in a region that was already suffering deeply from the Great Depression. This makes the Tupelo Tornado among the most devastating storms to affect the region.
In 1967, a surprise blizzard caught Chicagoans flat-footed and dumped almost two feet of snow on the Windy City. Famously, meteorologists had only expected a few inches of snow for the January storm, leading to many people being completely unprepared for the chaos of the massive storm that hit the city.
Harvey impacted the region of Houston, Texas in August of 2017, causing major damage to the metropolitan area and widespread flooding. Eighty-nine people died in the storm and it caused over 12 billion dollars of damage to the surrounding area. The region saw over 60 inches of rain during the storm and it displaced over 30,000 people.
The Tri-State tornado claimed some 695 lives in 1925, making it the deadliest tornado in US history. The tornado was so deadly in part because of its particularly unlucky path: it cut straight through a poor housing area, damaging tin-roofed shacks and causing massive loss of life for the residents of the region.
In 1996, a blizzard brought on by a bizarre pressure front caused massive damage throughout the Northeast US. President Bill Clinton had to shut down the federal government for a week due to the extreme conditions. The president went so far as to declare several of the afflicted states disaster areas. The storm was so severe that several people had roofs collapse under the weight of the snow accumulation.
Mining accidents normally affect regions below the ground, not above, but that wasn’t the case with the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood. The accident occurred on February 26, 1972, when a coal waste dam gave way to a torrent of disgusting silt and coal. Communities downstream were wiped out by the landslide, and the survivors went on to sue the Buffalo Creek Mining Company for their lack of safety protocols. The case was settled for a whopping $13.5 million.
Another disaster that took place in 1972, Agnes swept through the Eastern US and affected at least 15 states with flooding rainfall and driving winds. Pennsylvania saw deadly flooding in the Susquehanna and Lackawanna rivers. At the time, Agnes was the costliest hurricane in American history.
The biggest storm to hit DC since the 1996 blizzard, the 2003 President’s Day Storm started on February 15 and shut the city down for several days. Flights across the East Coast were cancelled and pedestrians were more common on roads than cars for days. Driving winds only worsened conditions, creating snowbanks throughout the region.
In 1998, massive flooding in the Southeastern United States was blamed on a powerful El Nino weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean. In Tampa alone, 36 inches of rainfall were recorded in the winter of 1997 into 1998. The flooding caused over one billion dollars in damage throughout the first part of the year.
This bizarre storm occurred during the celebration of Colorado’s centennial anniversary of becoming a state. Partiers in the canyon noticed rain starting in the evening, which quickly picked up to become an historic downpour. In a few short hours, a year’s worth of rain fell into the canyon, flooding the region and bring a twenty-foot wave down on the revelers. Rescue crews were called out to find the over 100 victims of the tragedy.
During the 2005 Massachusetts blizzard, a famous image of two brave Bostoners skiing through the city center became the face of the historic snowfall. Several Cape Cod homes lost power during the blizzard, which sported hurricane-force winds for extended periods of time and dropped several inches of snow on the region.
In 1946, an historic Pacific tsunami was caused by the Aleutian Islands earthquake on April 1. This massive wave was no joke, a huge amount of water displaced by the huge underwater earthquake. The Hawaiian city of Hilo had a third of its buildings destroyed by the wave, while elsewhere on the island a schoolhouse was destroyed, killing the teacher and her 25 students.
This hurricane, recorded in October 1893, occurred before hurricanes were given official names. However, its lack of a proper name didn’t make it any less deadly: upon making landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 storm, it caused unprecedented damage and left over a thousand people dead.
Only a year after the historic Massachusetts Blizzard in 2005, New York faced unprecedented snowfall of its own. The two-day storm over the Big Apple was a rare “thundersnow,” a weather condition that is a thunderstorm with snowing precipitation instead of rainfall. The 2006 blizzard remains one of the highest snowfall totals in the city’s history.
A series of devastating floods in the Southeastern US occurred in 1996 following an unusually active season of blizzards in the preceding winter. As the snow melted from mountaintops it caused historic runoff into rivers, many of which jumped their banks, causing billions of dollars in damage.
The 1893 Sea Islands hurricane in South Carolina is one of the worst weather disasters the Palmetto State has ever suffered. The Category 3 hurricane impacted the roughly 100 islands off the Southeastern coast of the United States, killing between 1,000 and 2,000 people, primarily people in poorer communities who were hardly prepared to handle such a massive storm.
In 1955, a one-two punch of hurricanes led to historic flooding along the East Coast. Some of the worst flooding was in Virginia, which saw more than five inches of rainfall in 24 hours. Over 200 dams in New England are said to have either broken or experienced structural damage during the pair of hurricanes. Over 200 people died in the sweeping disaster.
The massive storm “Snowmageddon” hit the entirety of the US in 2010. President Obama named the storm, half-jokingly, in a speech. Snowmageddon at one point covered nearly 70 percent of the United States in snow, stretching all the way from the West Coast to the East Coast. Only a few days after Snowmageddon stopped, parts of the Eastern US were hit by a blizzard aptly named “Snoverkill”.
The Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 made landfall on September 26. The destructive storm caused massive damage to the region, and, according to unofficial estimates from local newspapers, may have claimed upwards of 2,500 lives. However, an official death toll was never confirmed in the massive storm.
The deadliest weather event in Ohio history occurred in 1913, when excessive rainfall led to massive flooding in the state. Some 467 people were killed in the statewide flooding disaster, with over 40,000 homes being flooded. The Ohio River rose 21 feet in 24 hours according to historical records, a terrifying fact when one considers the floodwaters reached nearly every corner of the state.
Another devastating snowstorm in 2014, the Snowvember storm left several inches of snow in the Northeastern United States. Notably, Buffalo, New York saw the worst of it, receiving a jaw-dropping seven feet of snowfall in November of 2014. The snowfall was so intense it caused the delay of an NFL match between the Bills and the Jets.
The deadly Hurricane Maria made history when it made landfall on Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm. The massive storm caused a humanitarian crisis in the US territory, leading to criticism of the federal government’s handling of the disaster. A later study suggested as many as 4,600 people could have died due to complications stemming from the storm’s damage to the island.
One of the deadliest nor’easters of all time hit New England in 1938. The infamous storm brought seven inches of rain, tidal waves over 50 feet, 47 MPH sustained winds and claimed at least 700 lives. Over 63,000 people lost homes in the disaster, which occurred at the height of the Great Depression.
In 2016, Storm Jonas dropped some two feet of snow at JFK Airport, bringing snowfall totals to the East Coast that rivaled the 2006 blizzard a decade earlier. The storm led to over 50 deaths and kept cars buried in snow for over three days in Washington DC.
In 1935, a Category 5 storm hit Florida at speeds that have never been seen since in the Continental United States. The unbelievable tempest kicked up a 20-foot storm surge as it descended on the Florida Keys, killing many World War I veterans who had been working on highways and roads in the region. The death toll from the storm isn’t certain, but it is estimated to have claimed over 500 lives.
The 1900 Galveston Hurricane kicked off the 20th Century with death and destruction for Texas. The deadliest storm in US history, the Great Galveston Storm hit the city as a Category 4 hurricane. According to estimates, it claimed somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 lives as it caused storm surges exceeding 15 feet.