Billion-Dollar Hurricanes Of The Last Century

Despite the advances in modern technology and the greater ability of weather experts to forecast the path and strength of hurricanes, the hurricane season in the US always seems to inflict more damage than, perhaps, it should. Of course, we are dealing with the forces of nature here and they should never be underestimated, but despite every precaution there is damage to a greater or lesser extent every year.

Some of these hurricanes in living memory, such as Katrina, have caused notably more damage than others. Here is a look at the top ten most expensive hurricanes in terms of damage in the last 100 years, together with the total amount of damage at the time and an estimate of the damage if the same hurricane hit today.

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10 1969, Hurricane Camille: $21.2 billion 

Camille struck landfall on the Mississippi coastline on August 17th 1969, its lowest barometric pressure of 26.84 inches making it the second most intense hurricane since records began, after the Labor Day hurricane of 1936.

In fact, the winds were so strong that they destroyed all of the recording instruments so the maximum speed was a bit of an estimate, but put at 200 mph.

The number of deaths was 256. Of these, 143 were on the Gulf coast and the rest a result of flooding in Virginia. Camille inundated 860,000 acres of land, 70% of the 14 mile long Dauphin Island being under water. A hurricane party was held in Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi on the third floor. There are no accurate figures of the number at the party, but the storm surge demolished the building and there was only one survivor.

Total damage was put at $1.42 billion, but today’s figure would be $21.2 billion.

9 1960, Hurricane Donna: $29.6 billion 

On September 4th 1960 hurricane Donna hit Saint Maarten killing 7 and leaving a quarter of the population homeless. 5 further deaths were reported in Anguilla, 7 more throughout the Virgin Islands and 107 in Puerto Rico, mainly because of flooding. The hurricane was moving very slowly which resulted in far more rainfall than usual.

Early on September 10th Donna hit Florida severely damaging 75% of the buildings in the Florida Keys and a further 5,200 on the mainland. 50% of the buildings in Everglades were damaged, 50% of the grapefruit crop was destroyed and the avocado crop wiped out.

The hurricane continued up the coast and hit North Carolina on September 12th destroying buildings and crops as far as 50 miles inland. Later that day it hit Long Island but had severly weakened and petered out.

Total deaths were 164 and Donna holds the record for having hurricane status for no less than 17 days. Damage at the time was $387 million, but today would be $29.6 billion.

8 1928, Lake Okeechobee Hurricane: $33.6 billion 

This struck Guadeloupe on September 12th 1928 causing 1200 deaths and wiping out virtually every building. Moving on to Puerto Rico it caused only 300 deaths, since the island was well prepared.

It struck South Florida on September 16th killing over 2,500. The greatest loss of ife was around Lake Okeechobee where the winds pushed the water into a surge against the south shore causing a dike to fail and the water rushed into surrounding farmland killing hundreds of people. Many of them were migrant workers and their bodies were washed into the Everglades and never found.

Total damage was 100 million, but today would be $33.6 billion.

7 1944, Cuba-Florida Hurricane: $38.7 billion 

This hurricane developed over the south Caribbean Sea on October 12th 1944, striking Pinar del Rio on October 17th, then moving on to Sarasota in Florida on October 19th, where it virtually wiped out the citrus crop.

The greatest destruction was in Cuba where there were over 300 deaths. There were only 18 deaths in Florida, but the area between Sarasota and the Everglades saw a maximum tide height of 28 feet.

In one sense it was lucky that WWII was in full swing since there were many military bases and training grounds in the St Augustine area and the military were able to help in moving residents to safety which minimized casualties. Damage at the time was over $105 million but today would be $38.7 billion.

6 1938, Great New England Hurricane: $39.2 billion 

Also known as the Long Island Express, this struck Long Island and Connecticut on September 21st 1938. It struck without warning causing somewhere between 600 and 800 deaths. Although forecasters had been tracking it predicting that it would make landfall in Florida on September 19th it turned north. The weathermen assumed it was heading out to sea, gave a high wind warning and left it at that.

However, the conditions in the Atlantic caused it to treble its speed, traveling 425 miles in just eight hours. Maximum wind speed when it struck was 150 mph with sustained speeds of 121 miles per hour which caused tidal surges of up to 25 feet.

Damage was $308 million  - $39.2 billion if it struck today.

5 1992, Hurricane Andrew: $57.7 billion 

This Category 5 hurricane hit the Bahamas on August 23rd 1992 destroying 800 houses and causing $250 million in damage. It then struck Dade County in Florida before crossing the Gulf of Mexico and striking Morgan City, Louisiana.

In Florida 63,000 homes were destroyed and a further 101,000 damaged, leaving around 175,000 families homeless. 1.4 million people had no electricity and 70,000 acres of trees were flattened. In Florida alone there were 44 fatalities and $25 billion of damage.

Oil platforms were severely damaged or lost. One company lost 13 platforms, sustained damage to another 104 structures and had 5 drilling wells blown off course. Total damage suffered by the oil industry was $500 million.

In Louisiana there were 17 fatalities, 1,000 homes destroyed and a further 23,000 damaged, while 187 million freshwater fish were killed in the Atchafalaya River basin. Total damage was $26.5 billion. Today’s figure would be $57.7 billion.

4 1915, Galveston Hurricane: $61.7 billion 

This struck Galveston on August 17th 1915, just fifteen years after the 1900 hurricane which hit the same area causing over 8,000 deaths. After the earlier hurricane a sea wall was built which saved a lot of the area the second time around, despite 21 feet high waves.

However a lot of damage was done in other areas, notably Houston. Total damage for this was $56 million, but if the same thing happened today – despite the sea wall – the damage is estimated at $61.7 billion.

3 1900, First Galveston Hurricane: $80 billion 

When this made landfall on September 8th 1900 it brought with it winds of 145 mph. There was never an exaact figure of fatalities, the most common one being over 8,000, but some estimates put it as high as 12,000. Even the 8,000 figure makes it the third highest death toll for any Atlantic hurricane besides the Great Hurricane of 1780 and the 1998 Hurricane Mitch.

At the time, the highest point in Galveston was 8’ 7” above sea level and the storm surge was 15 feet. Houses were knocked off their foundations and the surf smashed them to bits. The barometric pressure was so low, recorded at 28.48, that it was assumed to be an error. However, later figures have more accurately placed it at 27.63.

The number of dead was so high that it was impossible to bury them and many were weighted and dropped out to sea. However, the currents washed many of them back on to the beach and the authorities ordered them to be placed on funeral pyres where they collected; these burned for several weeks. So distressing was the work for the men undertaking this that they were given free whisky.

At the time the damage was estimated at $20 million. Today’s figure is $80 billion.

2 2005, Hurricane Katrina: $90 billion

If you thought that Katrina was the worst hurricane ever to hit the eastern seaboard there is one which beats it. However, when it struck Florida, between Hallandale Beach and Aventura on August 25th 2005 it had only been officially upgraded to hurricane status two hours beforehand. It lost some strength overland but then became a hurricane again just one hour after entering the Gulf of Mexico.

Damage in Florida was put at between $1 billion and $2 billion, mostly from flooding and uprooted trees. Crossing the Gulf caused Katrina to double in size to 120 miles across.

When it finally hit New Orleans it caused breaches in the levees in no less than 53 different places which caused flooding in 80% of the city. Furthermore, there were also some flood gates which were not closed, just to add to the problem.

The Federal confirmed disaster area covered 90,000 square miles which is almost the size of the UK. Total fatalities were 1836, most of them in New Orleans. The total damage was $81 billion, which today is probably nearer $90 billion. 

1 1926, The Great Miami Hurricane: $178 billion

When this hurricane struck Miami on September 18th 1926 it virtually destroyed the city. Storm tides of up to 11.7 feet were recorded, while on Miami Beach they were 10.6 feet on the ocean side and 6.4 feet on the bay side. It also caused significant damage in the Florida Panhandle, the Bahamas and Alabama.

The death toll was 372 and the total damage put at $105 million – a huge sum for the time.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has calculated that if an identical hurricane occurred today the damage would be $178 billion – more than twice that of Katrina.

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