April 1, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Worst Natural Disasters in U.S. History


Devastating Natural Disasters in the U.S.

There are hundreds of natural disasters in American history that have completely devastated the nation.

From hurricanes and earthquakes to floods and wildfires, there is no shortage of Mother Nature’s wrath in America.

Leaving thousands of lives lost, and billions of dollars in damage, here are only some of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

hurricane wreckage and survivors split image

Definition of Natural Disaster

Before we dive into the actual events that have taken place, let’s gain a better understanding of natural disasters.

A natural disaster is defined as “the highly harmful impact on a society or community following a natural hazard event.”

Ruins of flooded citymdm7807, Shutterstock

Examples of Natural Disasters

Natural disasters can include: flooding, drought, earthquakes, tropical storms, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic activity, wildfires, heat waves, avalanches, and more.

collapsed roadsaustinding, Shutterstock

Impact on Society

Natural disasters typically cause loss of life and damage to property. Most often, natural disasters also leave hefty economic damage in their wake.

Hurricane Ian flooded housesBilanol, Shutterstock

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Climate Change Effects

According to Wikipedia, some of the 18 natural disasters included in the National Risk Index of FEMA now have a higher probability of occurring, and at higher intensity, due to the effects of climate change.

These include heat waves, droughts, wildfires and coastal flooding.

Drought and dry plantsPiyaset, Shutterstock

Natural Disasters in the U.S.

The United States has experienced 377 weather and climate disasters since 1980, with a total damage cost exceeding $2.670 trillion.

Note: The cost estimates in this article include inflation rates for an estimated 2024 value. 

Hurricane HarveyCire notrevo, Shutterstock

Most Common Natural Disaster in the U.S.

The most common natural disaster in the U.S. is flooding, accounting for 90%. New Jersey, New York, and Virginia top the list for flooding disasters.

Here are 6 of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

Hurricane Harvey 2017MDay Photography, Shutterstock

The Great Galveston Storm of 1900

On September 8th, 1900, in Galveston, Texas, an unnamed hurricane with 140mph winds slammed into the Gulf Coast.

This caused a 16-foot storm surge that nearly took out the entire population of the island.

Galveston Hurricane, 1900Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

The Great Galveston Storm: Wreckage

The harrowing details of the aftermath include trolley tracks being ripped apart and smashing through buildings, a grand piano riding a 6-foot wave down Broadway, and a terrifying wind that witnesses describe as “a thousand little devils shrieking and whistling.”

Total estimated damage cost $1.25 billion.

Galveston Hurricane of 1900Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

The Great Galveston Storm: Fatalities

An estimated 8,000 people lost their lives in the storm, making it the single deadliest in U.S. history. 

Galveston hurricane, 1900Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

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The Great Galveston Storm: Tragedy at St. Mary’s

The greatest tragedy of the storm happened to St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum, where 93 children and 10 nuns took refuge in the dormitory, after half of their building was lifted off its foundation and washed away.

Sadly, their desperate attempt to live was no match for the ugly storm.

1900 Galveston hurricaneSMU Central University Libraries, Wikimedia Commons

The Great Galveston Storm: Immense Loss

The sisters tied themselves to the children using clothesline, in a desperate attempt to keep everyone together—and that’s how most of their bodies were found. Only three orphans survived.

1900 Galveston hurricanepingnews.com, Flickr

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906

On April 18, 1906, at precisely 5:12am, residents of San Francisco were woken up with an intense jolt that gave only mere minutes of warning to what was about to happen next.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906Chadwick, H. D, Wikimedia Commons

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Earthquake

For almost an entire minute, San Francisco was rocked with a 7.9-magnitute earthquake that ripped a 296-mile fissure along the San Andreas Fault.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Wreckage

The earthquake completely leveled buildings and homes for as far as the eye could see. Complete devastation hit the 450,000 residents of the Northern California city.

But that was only the beginning of the nightmare.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906The U.S. National Archives, Flickr

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Fires

Hundreds of fires broke out across the city, fueled by broken gas lines. Firefighters could only watch helplessly as their water supply was drained by ruptured pipes.

The fires raged for three days, demolishing nearly 500 city blocks.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906Mike Goad, Flickr

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The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Aftermath

City officials estimated that more than 3,000 people lost their lives. And more than 28,000 buildings were destroyed leaving about 200,000 citizens homeless.

Total property value loss was estimated at $350 million.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906National Archives at College Park, Wikimedia Commons

The Johnstown Flood of 1889

On May 31, 1889 a 40-foot-high, half-mile wide tsunami struck the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In mere minutes, the town was completely destroyed.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889Langill & Darling, Wikimedia Commons

The Johnstown Flood of 1889: Fatalities

A total of 2,209 people lost their lives that day, including 99 entire families. Thousands of others were severely injured.

Bodies were recovered as far away as Cincinnati—more than 350 miles to the west.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Johnstown Flood of 1889: The Cause

The cause of the tsunami—which do not typically strike central Pennsylvania—was due to a dam malfunction.

A man-made reservoir holding back 20 million tons of water ruptured after several days of extremely heavy rainfall.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889Ernest Walter Histed, Wikimedia Commons

The Johnstown Flood of 1889: Blame

Further blame was put on the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the owners of the dam, for their recent modifications to the dam where they blocked drainage pipes to maintain fish population in deep water.

Investigations ensued and the owners were not found legally responsible.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889Francis Schell and Thomas Hogan, Wikimedia Commons

The Johnstown Flood of 1889: Relief Efforts

Even though they were not held responsible, the owners, and many club members donated thousands of dollars toward relief efforts, including building a new town library.

Damages were estimated at over $550 million.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889Library of Congress, Picryl

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The Johnstown Flood of 1889: Wreckage

When the dam broke, the massive rush of water tore down the mountainside picking up enormous trees and large boulders that gained immense speed and strength as they tore through the town, taking out trains and buildings in seconds flat.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889E. Benjamin Andrews, Wikimedia Commons

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871

On October 8, 1871, a massive wildfire burned through Wisconsin and Michigan, originating near the small town of Peshtigo.

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871G. J. Tisdale, Wikimedia Commons

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871: Cause

Drought conditions in the upper Midwest is to blame for a string of wildfires happening at the time.

High winds sent the flames into firestorms, creating tornado-like columns of fire that were able to leap firebreaks and large bodies of water.

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871Chicago Lithographing Co.,Wikimedia Commons

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871: Witness Accounts

Witnesses report the approaching inferno sounding like a freight train. A local priest described the scene: “The flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire.”

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871U.S. Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region, Flickr

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871: Fatalities

An estimated 2,500 people lost their lives, including a group that took refuge in a water tower where the water boiled them to eternal rest.

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871Frank Zimmerman, Flickr

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871: Witness Accounts

Survivors are haunted by scenes of fathers ending the lives of their families’ moments before the flames took them out, sparing them of a brutal demise.

Peshtigo Harbor, Wisconsin, 1871Peshtigo Times, Wikimedia Commons

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871: Damage

The fire scorched 1.5 million acres and estimated about $169 million in property damage. The fire was so hot that it turned street sand to glass.

Peshtigo Fire Museumself, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Katrina of 2005

In August 2005, a deadly Category-5 hurricane made landfall along the Gulf Coast, devastating several U.S. states, hitting New Orleans the worst, causing catastrophic flooding.

Hurricane Katrina of 2005Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Katrina of 2005: Flooding

After the initial hit of the hurricane, which completely destroyed communities, 80% of New Orleans was flooded for several weeks, which destroyed transportation and communication facilities—leaving anyone left in the city with limited resources for survival.

Hurricane Katrina of 2005The U.S. National Archives, Picryl

Hurricane Katrina of 2005: Evacuation

Tens of thousands of people were not able to evacuate prior to the event, and were left homeless on the streets with little access to food and shelter.

This prompted both national and international calls for help.

Hurricane Katrina of 2005National Archives at College Park, Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Katrina of 2005: Damage

Two-thirds of the flooding was caused by multiple failures of the city’s floodwalls. Over 90,000 square miles of the United States were destroyed and an estimated 3 million people were without electricity.

Property damage including all areas affected was estimated at $200 billion.

Hurricane Katrina of 2005National Archives at College Park, Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Katrina of 2005: Recovery

It took months to locate all of the bodies, with over 700 recovered in New Orleans by end of October. Survivors report seeing bodies floating in flooded streets for weeks before anyone was able to get to them.

Hurricane Katrina of 2005 floodJocelyn Augustino, Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Katrina of 2005: Fatalities

Total fatalities are estimated at 1,836—but this number is often disputed as several people remain unaccounted for to this day.

This includes a number of prisoners who were abandoned in their cells during the storm and were later “unaccounted for.”

Hurricane Katrina of 2005The U.S. National Archives, Picryl

Hurricane Maria of 2017

Although there are numerous hurricanes that rocked the U.S. with immense damage, new data from Harvard public health researchers claim Hurricane Maria, which tore through Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.

hurricane maria of 2017Alessandro Pietri, Shutterstock

Hurricane Maria of 2017: A Super Storm

Hurricane Maria was a Category-5 tropical cyclone that completely devastated the northeastern Caribbean, particularly in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

hurricane maria of 2017Rena Schild, Shutterstock

Hurricane Maria of 2017: Wreckage

Aside from immense flooding and destroying housing and infrastructure beyond repair, the hurricane also caused the worst blackout in U.S. history—which lasted for several months.

Total estimate property damage was upwards of $92 billion.

Hurricane Maria of 2017Photo Spirit, Shutterstock

Hurricane Maria of 2017: Fatalities

It was months before a somewhat accurate fatality count was made, given the magnitude of devastation.

The final number was estimated at 4,645 people, with numerous missing persons, and countless injuries. Hurricane Maria claimed more lives than 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina combined.

hurricane maria of 2017 puerto ricoPhoto Spirit, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

Sadly, if we went back to the beginning of time, this list would be never ending. Hurricanes alone have completely devastated the U.S. on numerous occasions, leaving lasting effects for decades.

Many of the natural disasters this nation has experienced stay deep-rooted in our memories as some of the worst events in history.

Hurricane Irma hit Fort Lauderdale, FL.FotoKina, Shutterstock

Sources: 1, 2


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