As far back as news has been reported, the United States has had to deal with hurricanes. Sometimes years can go by without anything major striking the country and then all of a sudden there will be one hurricane season that is really bad. Sometimes there is only one major storm that makes landfall in a season but it can be enough to leave memories that last forever.
Some of the biggest in history don’t even make a blip on the map of the all-time most destructive. Some hurricanes deserve an honorable mention before we get into those storms that were the worst ever. In modern times storms like Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Frances, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Charley, Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Wilma all left a memorable amount of damage but still don’t rank as the worst ever. Then you have events like the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that rocked the US with 161 mile per hour sustained winds, or Hurricane Betsy that slammed into Miami in 1965. Those are certainly on the books as some of the worst ever, but they don't hold a candle to what we have below.
Death, damage, and destruction are all below as we cover the 15 worst hurricanes to ever hit the United States.
15 Hurricane Hugo – 1989
Hurricane Hugo came ashore on September 21, 1989 in South Carolina as a Category 4 storm packing winds of around 135 miles per hour. In the United States, it caused $7.1 billion in damage and resulted in the deaths of 27 people. Overall the storm caused a total of nearly $13 billion in damage and it killed over 100 people. The financial damage in the United States made it the costliest storm ever to that point.
The hurricane caused extensive damage and death in Puerto Rico and the Leeward Islands before moving on to the United States. It was a Category 5 storm when it rocked those islands, the strongest it would get. After passing over the islands it weakened down to a Category 2 before intensifying back up to a 4 before taking aim just north of Charleston, South Carolina.
It contained wind gusts of up to 160 miles per hour and the storm was moving so fast that the very next day it was all the way up near Lake Erie. Thirty four people died in the Caribbean from drowning and electrocution. Overall almost 100,000 people were left homeless after Hugo came through. It now doesn’t even rank in the top 10 costliest storms in United States history.
14 Tropical Storm Allison – 2001
Tropical Storm Allison is one of the most devastating storms to hit the United States even though it never reached hurricane status. That makes it not only the deadliest tropical storm ever but also the most costly. Forty one people lost their lives and more than $5 billion in damage was done as the storm struck Texas and then Louisiana.
Allison came together over the Gulf of Mexico on June 4th and moved over Texas very quickly after forming. It stayed in the tropical or subtropical state for fifteen days which is extremely long for a storm forming in that region. That allowed it to dump devastating amounts of rain causing horrendous flooding.
More than 40 inches of rain fell on Texas with the worst flooding happening in the Houston area. More than 30,000 people were homeless and more than 70,000 homes were flooded, more than 2,700 of those being destroyed.
Twenty three people died in Texas alone before the storm moved back out into the gulf and then hit Louisiana. The total damage amount when all was said and done was nearly $9 billion ($5 billion in Texas). Because of the devastation it left behind Allison became the first ever Atlantic tropical storm to have its name retired despite never reaching official hurricane status.
13 Hurricane Irene – 2011
Hurricane Irene hit North Carolina on August 27th, 2011 and was the cause of 56 deaths and $7.3 billion in damages. The Category 1 storm had reached the level of Category 3 several days before but the winds decreased before making landfall in the United States. At its strongest the storm had maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour.
The hurricane rocked St. Croix, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola before turning toward the Bahamas and setting its sights on the east coast. After going through North Carolina it turned out toward the Atlantic again and moved northward making another landfall in New Jersey and then again in Brooklyn, New York. The storm brought massive flooding into the New York area. It continued northward and despite its loss of strength and the winds coming way down, it still caused damage all the way up in Canada.
The overall numbers were $15.6 billion in damages in the United States ($7 billion in North Carolina), $830 million in the Caribbean, and $130 million in Canada. So the grand total of damage caused by Irene was right around $16.6 billion. At that time it was the 7th most costly storm in United States history.
12 Hurricane Floyd – 1999
Hurricane Floyd was a Category 2 storm that ravaged pretty much the entire east coast and brought major flooding along with it. The flooding was the worst between North Carolina and New Jersey. It was originally projected to miss Miami but a late shift sent it much closer and very strong tropical storm force winds pounded the area even though official landfall was never made. It was a very hard storm for forecasters to predict and they were never sure if that area was actually going to be hit.
It made landfall in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina and went up the entire east coast leaving behind tons of rainfall. At one point it had maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and the wind reached just two miles per hour shy of being rated a Category 5. Overall a total of fifty seven people were killed and the storm caused a total of $6.9 million in damage. Due to the devastation that was left behind the name Floyd was retired by the World Meteorological Organization. The storm was officially active for twelve days and it was the cause of the third largest US evacuation in history when 2.6 million people were told to leave.
11 Great Atlantic Hurricane – 1944
In 1944 The Great Atlantic Hurricane rocked the east coast but left the most significant amount of damage in the New England area. Sixty four people died and there was a total cost of over $100 million dollars in damage. If you put those numbers into today’s finances you’ll find that it would be one of the costliest storms ever.
Before it hit land in the United States it reached a high of a Category 4 storm when it was near the Bahamas. When it reached US soil it was a Category 3 hurricane and it tore up lower New England at that strength before it was downgraded to a Category 2 storm right before it moved into Maine.
September 15th was the official landfall date on Long Island and then Rhode Island. This land is what caused the storm to weaken to a Category 2. The storm kept moving northeast and eventually was swallowed up by another tropical system that was located off the coast of Greenland.
Before the hurricane moved onto land it caused waves of more than 70 feet high and it was the cause of the sinking of the Navy destroyer The USS Warrington. It was located about 450 miles to the east of Vero Beach, Florida at the time and 248 sailors were killed. The total deaths that are reported from a hurricane are those that take place on land so the number of 64 only reflects those people, not the sailors who were aboard the doomed ship.
10 Hurricane Agnes – 1972
In 1972 Hurricane Agnes came to life for only nine days. In those nine days however she caused some of the worst damages inland that have ever been seen. When it made landfall it was a Category 1 hurricane but it caused damage all the way inland to Pennsylvania. 121 people were killed in the storm and the damage amount was close to $2.1 billion. Putting that number into 2010 numbers it would have been nearly $12 billion in damage. At the time it ranked as the second costliest storm in history.
The first landfall in the United States was in Panama City, Florida and it then made its way up to Georgia. This caused the storm to weaken severely but as it passed over North Carolina on June 21st it gathered strength again from the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There it made a northwest turn and once again made landfall, this time near New York City. Most of the damage caused to the west of there was from the major flooding that came from the dumping of huge amounts of rainfall. Portions of Pennsylvania were left only as mud holes once the water finally went down.
9 Hurricane Ike – 2008
In 2008 Hurricane Ike was exactly what most people in the southern part of the United States wear afraid of. The areas of Texas and Louisiana were still dealing with what Hurricane Katrina had done and Ike, while not following the exact same path, followed one close enough to cause even more damage. In all there were 195 deaths attributed to the storm and it caused $29.5 billion in damage, making it the third costliest storm in United States history.
At its peak, it was a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour and on September 8th it slammed into Cuba with those devastating winds. As it entered the Gulf of Mexico the storm had weakened quite a bit to a Category 1 but over the warm waters it once again got stronger, this time moving back up to a Category 2 hurricane by the time it made landfall in Galveston, Texas on September 13th.
Ike only lived for two more days but it had traveled all the way up into Canada by that time, leaving a wake of destruction behind. Of the 195 deaths that were reported, 74 of those were in Haiti. That island was rocked that hurricane season as three other storms had already made landfall there before Ike (Fay, Gustav and Hanna).
8 Hurricane Camille – 1969
Hurricane Camille made landfall in Mississippi in August of 1969 as one of the strongest storms to ever hit the United States. After it formed in the Gulf of Mexico it strengthened into a Category 5 storm and slammed into the area with sustained winds that were estimated to be around 190 miles per hour. The exact wind speed will never be known because all of the equipment that was used to record wind speeds was destroyed in the storm. What was recorded however, before equipment was destroyed, was the highest wind speeds to ever make landfall in the entire world. Columbia, Mississippi, a city that was located 75 miles inland from where landfall took place, recorded sustained winds of 120 miles per hour.
A total of 256 people lost their lives in the storm and the damage amount by 2010 numbers was recorded at around $9.2 billion. When meteorologists measure hurricanes now, Camille is always the one that they measure current storms against. The entire Gulf Coast was ravaged and there was a severe lack of good drinking water after the storm had passed.
That storm was the reason that all wind recording equipment was upgraded so that they could take accurate readings while still being battered by the intense winds.
7 The Great New England Hurricane – 1938
The Great New England Hurricane, also known as the “Long Island Express”, was one of the deadliest hurricanes to ever hit the New England area. Before making landfall in the United States as a Category 3 storm, it slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 5 hurricane and devastated the area.
After destroying many parts of that island it moved northward and rocked Long Island, New York, and Connecticut. When all was said and done in the US the storm left 256 people dead and caused around $308 million in damage. In 2010 numbers that would be close to $4.7 billion.
Over the two weeks that the storm was active it killed over 680 people (US, Puerto Rico and the Islands) and either damaged or destroyed over 57,000 homes along its path. Even thirteen years later in 1951 there were still several signs of damage that were left behind by the storm.
At The Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts, there was a recording of 121 mile per hour sustained winds with a gust of 186 miles per hour. That gust is the highest hurricane related surface wind ever recorded on United States soil. Off of the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, a wave of 50 feet high was also recorded.
6 Hurricane Sandy – 2012
Hurricane Sandy struck the New York and New Jersey area in 2012 and it left behind destruction that has never been seen before from a Category 1 hurricane. Even at just a Category 1, the winds are still very damaging but what did most of the damage during this storm was fire and flooding.
The storm surge was so great from “Superstorm Sandy” that the streets of New York City were flooded along with subways and tunnels. Much of the area uses underground transportation and those were obviously underwater.
During the storm, the Breezy Point area of Rockaway, in Queens, saw over one hundred homes destroyed by fire. By the time the storm had completely dissipated it had caused more than $71 billion in damage (second costliest storm in United States history), 286 deaths (72 in the United States) and left over 6 million people homeless.
The storm peaked at a Category 3 when it slammed into Cuba but weakened by the time it made landfall in the US. The entire storm is the largest storm ever recorded in terms of size. It spanned over 1,100 miles so it obviously covered large areas with damage. A good radar photo of the storm at landfall shows that it covered most of the northeast part of the country.
5 The Great Galveston Hurricane – 1900
On September 8th, 1900 The Great Galveston Hurricane hit Texas as a Category 4 storm with little to no warning at all. Things were much different back then and nobody knew it was coming until it was too late. It made landfall with sustained winds between 130-156 miles per hour and a storm surge of nearly fifteen feet. The lack of warning led to the highest death toll of any hurricane to hit the United States, somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000.
Galveston was destroyed on its east, south and west sides and the destruction extended as far as five blocks in from shore. More than 3,500 homes were destroyed in the area and there was a total of $21 million in damage done. That number in 2015 terms would be around $598 million. While it may not seem like a lot because these days damages are usually measured in the billions of dollars, you have to take into consideration that everything was so primitive in those days and it was all completely destroyed.
The forecasters at the time obviously didn’t have the sophisticated equipment that is used today and the storm wasn’t officially declared a hurricane until the day before it hit. The night prior to landfall they started to warn people that it was actually something that needed to be worried about but it was far too late at that point. The next morning the area was left in devastation.
4 Southeast Florida/Lake Okeechobee Hurricane – 1928
This devastating hurricane struck southeast Florida in 1928 and is referred to as the Southeast Florida Hurricane, The Lake Okeechobee Hurricane or the San Felipe Segundo Hurricane. It was the second deadliest storm in the history of the United States as the death toll in America was between 2,500 and 3,000.
Most of those killed were drowning victims as the Category 4 storm that slammed into Palm Beach caused major flooding in the Lake Okeechobee area. The lake overflowed by up to fifteen feet and the surrounding areas were devastated. Before the storm reached United States soil it slammed into Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 144 miles per hour.
September 17th was the official date of landfall and sustained winds were at 145 miles per hour when it hit Palm Beach. Just a few days earlier the storm had reached a peak of sustained winds at 160 miles per hour (Category 5). It ripped into Puerto Rico just six hours after reaching its peak but had weakened just a little bit before making landfall. It was still a Category 5 storm but they were spared of the 160 mph winds.
The damage left behind on the island was nearly 25,000 homes being destroyed and over 190,000 damaged. There were over 500,000 people that were left homeless and 312 people died on the island during the brutal storm. When all was said and done the storm had caused more than $100 million in damages and almost 4,100 total deaths.
3 Hurricane Katrina – 2005
Hurricane Katrina left a mark on the United States like no other hurricane has before. It slammed into Miami as a Category 5 but that’s not even what it’s known for. A lot of people forget about that part of the storm. It’s what it did after that that’s the reason it will be forever remembered.
As it churned through the Gulf of Mexico it weakened to a Category 3 storm before making landfall on the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana but the damages were far worse than a Category 3 storm. While it was still a Category 5 out in the Gulf it was already pushing water toward the coast at record levels. Once the storm made landfall all of that water was forced onshore because there was nowhere else for it to go. The levees that surrounded New Orleans didn’t have a chance against the force of the water and they all failed leaving 80% of the city under 20 feet of water. The damage was so bad that it was days before help could get in to assist those in need. All in all over 1,200 people died from the storm and the final damage cost was $108 billion.
Once the storm made landfall all of that water was forced onshore because there was nowhere else for it to go. The levees that surrounded New Orleans didn’t have a chance against the force of the water and they all failed leaving 80% of the city under 20 feet of water. The damage was so bad that it was days before help could get in to assist those in need. All in all over 1,200 people died from the storm and the final damage cost was $108 billion.
2 Cheniere Caminada Hurricane – 1893
This strong Category 4 hurricane also rocked New Orleans but it was way back in 1893. The Cheniere Caminada Hurricane is named after the island that it destroyed and it is also known as The Great October Storm. There were more than 2,000 people that were killed due to the storm with about 1,400 of those coming on land. Most of the people that died on land were victims of the vicious storm surge that pounded the area.
The island just outside of New Orleans was completely devastated as the storm rolled over it. The storm surge was so devastating that some of the houses from the island were found as far away as Mobile, Alabama. Not much is known about the beginnings of the storm but it rocked the Yucatan Peninsula, mainly Cancun, with 95 mile per hour sustained winds on September 29th.
As it entered the Gulf of Mexico it strengthened into a Category 4 and made a beeline for the Louisiana coastline. It hit the small island area outside of New Orleans with sustained winds of 135 miles per hour. By October 5th the storm was completely gone but the damage would be felt for many years to come.
1 Sea Islands Hurricane – 1893
Before the previously mentioned hurricane rocked the New Orleans area in 1893 there was another storm that devastated the Savannah, Georgia area. That hurricane season was one of the worst ever recorded for obvious reasons. This Category 3 storm, called the Sea Islands Hurricane, killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people and brought with it a storm surge of nearly sixteen feet. Just about everything that stood on the barrier islands was destroyed.
August 27th was the official date of landfall and it was one of three deadly hurricanes that struck the United States that season. The reported storm surge of sixteen feet caused some areas to be under as much as thirty feet of water. Most of the people that lost their lives in that hurricane were victims of drowning.
The area of St. Helena was estimated to have 6,000 African American people living there and the area was only two feet above sea level. The very first waves from the storm caused major damage and the rest that followed completely devastated it.
Due to the extremely busy hurricane season, the Red Cross didn’t arrive to the area to help out until well after a month later. However, less than two weeks after they arrived on the scene another Category 3 hurricane hit just north of there and it took many years for the entire region to recover.