The 10 Worst Climate Disasters in U.S. History

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Woman outside her ruined home after a natural disaster or fire

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This story originally appeared on Porch.

One impact of climate change is that the number and severity of climate-related disasters is on the rise.

With the warming of the planet, several factors combine to make extreme weather more common.

Higher temperatures are more likely to produce heat waves and drought conditions, which increase the likelihood of wildfires. Warmer air can hold more water vapor, which leads to wetter storms, and with them, more flooding. Increased heat and evaporation have also combined to make tropical cyclones more common and more severe in recent years.

The financial consequences of these trends are enormous. Loss of life, property damage, infrastructure failures and business interruptions are some of the widely felt direct consequences when more intense natural disasters occur.

In the U.S., the costs associated with so-called billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events — those in which total damages exceeded $1 billion in today’s dollars — have grown sharply over the last decade, from a five-year annual average of $29.2 billion in 2010 to $121.4 billion in 2020.

Apart from direct damages, even the threat of weather disasters can have financial impacts. Property values in vulnerable areas may shift downward as severe weather disasters become more likely. Insurers can charge higher rates or make coverage harder to obtain for properties that could be at risk. And property owners may find themselves paying a premium for structures that are resistant to weather-related damage.

To find the worst disasters, researchers analyzed data from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and ranked events based on their estimated cost in 2020 dollars.

Following is the list of the worst climate disasters in U.S. history.

10. U.S. drought/heatwave

Hot sun

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  • Date: 2012
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $34.5 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $30 billion
  • Number of deaths: 123
  • Most impacted area: Midwest and West

High temperatures and low moisture brought on the most severe drought the U.S. had seen in decades during the summer of 2012. Drought conditions and more than two months of heat waves were directly responsible for more than 100 deaths and billions in economic losses due to failed harvests for crops like corn and soybeans.

9. Hurricane Ike

Hurricane Ike causing flooding in Florida

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  • Date: September 2008
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $36.9 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $30 billion
  • Number of deaths: 112
  • Most impacted area: Texas

After hitting Cuba as a Category 4 storm several days earlier, Hurricane Ike made landfall as a Category 2 storm near Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 13, 2008.

Ike damaged or destroyed more than 75% of the homes in Galveston and brought widespread damage elsewhere in eastern Texas. Damage totaled $30 billion.

8. Midwest flooding

Flooding

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  • Date: Summer 1993
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $38.1 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $21 billion
  • Number of deaths: 48
  • Most impacted area: Midwest

The Midwest experienced unusually high precipitation from rain and snow in 1992 and the first half of 1993.

As a result, parts of the Upper Mississippi River were at flood levels for almost 200 days in some locations, while the Missouri River basin experienced flood levels for nearly 100 days.

The ongoing floods destroyed tens of thousands of homes and inundated millions of acres of farmland.

7. U.S. drought/heatwave

high temperatures

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  • Date: Summer 1988
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $45 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $20 billion
  • Number of deaths: 454
  • Most impacted area: Midwest, West, Southeast

As the worst drought the U.S. had seen since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the drought of 1988 covered nearly half of the United States at its peak, and continued as late as 1990 in some locations.

The persistent hot, dry conditions led to billions of dollars in losses from crops and livestock, along with wildfires in Yellowstone National Park that burned nearly 800,000 acres.

6. Hurricane Andrew

Homes destroyed by Hurricane Andrew

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  • Date: August 1992
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $50.8 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $27 billion
  • Number of deaths: 61
  • Most impacted area: Florida and Louisiana

The 1992 Atlantic hurricane season’s first major storm was one of the most powerful on record. Andrew is only one of four hurricanes ever to make landfall in the U.S. as a Category 5 storm, with winds reaching nearly 174 miles per hour.

The storm ripped through southern Florida before re-emerging in the Gulf of Mexico and making a second landfall on the Louisiana coast several days later, causing more than $27 billion in damage.

5. Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma flooding in Florida

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  • Date: September 2017
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $52.5 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $50 billion
  • Number of deaths: 97
  • Most impacted area: Florida and South Carolina

2017’s hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season remains the costliest on record, and Hurricane Irma is one of the major reasons why.

After making landfall as a Category 4, Irma carved a path northward through the heart of Florida and into the southeastern U.S., bringing coastal flooding to Georgia and South Carolina as well. The storm’s damage totaled $50 billion.

4. Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane

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  • Date: October 2012
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $74.8 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $65 billion
  • Number of deaths: 159
  • Most impacted area: New York and New Jersey

At more than 900 miles in diameter, Hurricane (or Superstorm) Sandy was felt in 24 states, but Sandy is most remembered for its damage to the Mid-Atlantic region. After following a path north along the Atlantic coast, Sandy made an unusual westward turn into New York and New Jersey before merging with another storm system. Flooding and storm damage in New York City and other major East Coast metros contributed to Sandy’s $65 billion in damage.

3. Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria damage in Puerto Rico

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  • Date: September 2017
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $94.5 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $90 billion
  • Number of deaths: 2,981
  • Most impacted area: Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

Another one of 2017’s major hurricanes, Hurricane Maria brought catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

With the region still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Irma from two weeks prior, Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a powerful Category 4 storm.

Storm surge, heavy rains, and high winds leveled neighborhoods and destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s power grid, causing $90 billion in damage and nearly 3,000 deaths.

2. Hurricane Harvey

storm

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  • Date: August 2017
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $131.3 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $125 billion
  • Number of deaths: 89
  • Most impacted area: Texas

The costliest of the storms from the catastrophic 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, Hurricane Harvey also holds the distinction of being the wettest tropical cyclone on record.

Harvey made landfall in Texas as a Category 4 hurricane, but it was the storm’s prolonged stall over Houston and the Gulf Coast that made Harvey so expensive.

Over several days, Harvey dropped more than 5 feet of rain in some locations, causing floods that produced $125 billion in damage.

1. Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina flooding damage

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  • Date: August 2005
  • Estimated cost (2020 dollars): $170 billion
  • Estimated cost (actual dollars): $125 billion
  • Number of deaths: 1,833
  • Most impacted area: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama

Hurricane Katrina is perhaps remembered more for the infamously mismanaged government response than for the damage of the storm itself, but Katrina brought widespread devastation to the Gulf Coast. After reaching Category 5 strength in the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina eventually made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 3. Storm surge and heavy rains led to catastrophic failures in New Orleans’ flood protection infrastructure, leaving most of the city underwater for weeks. At $170 billion in 2020 dollars, Katrina remains the most expensive climate disaster in U.S. history.

Methodology and detailed findings

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To determine which climate disasters were the worst in U.S. history, researchers analyzed data from the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information’s (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2021) report. Weather events were ranked according to their CPI-adjusted estimated cost (adjusted to 2020 dollars).

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