The Most Expensive Natural Disasters in U.S. History
Wind, water, fire and drought have all wreaked havoc on the United States. What’s been the worst?
Even as the United States wrestled with a pandemic that kept many inside, climate disasters have continued to wreak havoc outside. A wave of winter storms and cold struck the Northwest, Central and Eastern U.S in February. While damage estimates are not final, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it has already become the most costly winter storm on record.
Meanwhile, wildfires raging in the west have continued to devastate both property and human lives. 2020 was a record-breaking season for wildfires, with more than 10.2 million acres of land in California, Oregon and Washington burned. But when it comes to economic damage, water still wins: No wildfire season has entered the list of most expensive natural disasters in the United States — not even the notorious California Camp Fire of 2018.
NOAA has already forecast 2021 to be another “above-normal” hurricane season (though likely less extreme than 2020), so keep your emergency kit ready and your fingers crossed, and have a look at the 10 most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history.
Estimated cost and death figures are from the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Estimated costs are adjusted for inflation and represent a confidence interval. More information is available here: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events/US/1980-2021
10. Drought and Heat Wave (2012), $34.8 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 123
The 2012 drought was the most extensive to affect the U.S. since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, according to NOAA. Moderate to extreme drought conditions affected more than half the country — from California to Georgia — for a majority of the year. Costly drought impacts in America’s agricultural heartland led to “widespread harvest failure for corn, sorghum and soybean crops, among others,” government scientists reported.
The heat wave also brought the word “derecho” into common usage, when one of these straight-line (as opposed to cyclonic) windstorms brought winds of over 90 miles per hour in a track from Chicago to Atlantic City, N.J. on June 29-30. The winds, moving forward at an average of 60 mph, downed countless trees and power lines, blew roofs off homes, businesses and schools, and overturned tractor-trailers. Five million people lost power, many for days. The death toll from the derechos is listed as 22.
9. Hurricane Ike (2008), $37.5 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 112
Hurricane Ike was only a Category 2 hurricane when it made landfall in September 2008, but its size was exceptional.
Tropical-force winds extended a total of 425 miles from the northwest to the southeast as it made landfall in Texas, bringing a destructive and deadly storm surge across the Texas and southwest Louisiana coasts.
That area is home to extensive oil and gas drilling, along with associated industries, and the storm resulted in severe gasoline shortages in the southeast U.S. due to damaged oil platforms, storage tanks, pipelines and refineries. Fuel prices across the country — and into Canada — spiked.
Many waterfront communities, including Galveston, Texas, and the nearby Bolivar Peninsula, were hit hard. Even the Houston Texans’ NFL home opener had to be delayed due to damage to Reliant Stadium.
8. Great Flood of 1993, $38.6 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 48
Storms get official names from the U.S. government; floods don’t. But the persistent heavy rains and thunderstorms that swelled the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries became known as the Great Flood of 1993. The National Weather Service considers it the "largest and most significant flood event ever to occur in the United States."
A huge swath of the Midwest was affected, and much of the river economy was shut down. Barge traffic was stopped for two months. Major bridges across the Missouri and Mississippi were out or inaccessible. Even commercial airports were flooded. And millions of acres of farmland were underwater.
7. Drought and Heat Wave (1988), $45.4 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 454
1988’s drought struck a large portion of the U.S., with severe losses to agriculture and related industries; the upper Midwest was particularly hard hit. Eleven states officially declared all of their counties disaster areas.
The combined flow of the three largest rivers in the lower 48 states — the Mississippi, St. Lawrence and Columbia — was 45% below normal in June, marking the lowest combined June flow in 60 years, according to a report by NOAA. Combined direct and indirect deaths due to heat stress were estimated at 5,000. Regional impacts of the drought lasted into 1999.
6: Hurricane Andrew (1992), $51.3 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 61
Hurricane Andrew was a compact storm. But it was incredibly powerful — one of only four storms to hit the U.S. as a Category 5, with winds of 157 mph or higher. And it was those winds, rather than the storm surge, that did most of the damage to South Florida in August 1992, peeling the paint off buildings, pulling trees and utility poles from the ground, and flipping cars and semi-trailers. Among the locations damaged: NOAA’s own meteorological lab, on Key Biscayne, just outside Miami.
Andrew gave the region little time to prepare. The first storm of the season, it weakened so significantly as it headed west across the Atlantic that the National Hurricane Center almost stopped tracking it. But then it set a course for land and blew up to its peak strength in less than 36 hours.
Memorable images from this storm include the almost-complete devastation of the town of Homestead, Fla. It also led to far more stringent building codes in the state; many homes are now required to have storm shutters or impact-resistant glass.
5. Hurricane Irma (2017), $53.5 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 97
Irma first directed its wrath on two of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John and St. Thomas, devastating both while still a Category 5 storm. It had only weakened to Category 4 when it made landfall at Cudjoe Key, Fla., in September 2017. The Florida Keys were heavily impacted, according to NOAA, with 25% of buildings destroyed and 65% significantly damaged. Wind and storm-surge damage occurred along the coasts of Florida and South Carolina, with Jacksonville experiencing the worst flooding in more than 200 years. Irma maintained a maximum sustained wind of 185 mph for 37 hours, the longest in the era of satellite observation.
4. Superstorm Sandy (2012), $75.4 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 159
Sandy was no longer a hurricane when it came ashore at Atlantic City, N.J., in October 2012. But the storm was still giant (in diameter), even if winds were off the mark. Furthermore, the landing of what became known as Superstorm Sandy happened at high tide, exacerbating the storm surge that brought waves inland and flooded large swaths of the northeast coast. Lower Manhattan was particularly hard hit, with the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel completely flooded. The New York Stock Exchange had to close for two days in a row, the first time that had happened since a snowstorm in 1888. Effects of the saltwater inundation linger to this day on the train tunnel that runs under the Hudson River, a critical link in the northeast’s transportation infrastructure.
New York and New Jersey bore the brunt, but all the coastal northeast states suffered extensive damage. Further inland, the storm merged with a developing nor’easter to pummel parts of the Appalachian ridge with wind, rain and heavy snow.
3. Hurricane Maria (2017), $96.3 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 2,981
The last of 2017’s troika of Category 4 storms to hit the U.S., Maria will be most remembered for the damage it did to Puerto Rico (though it also struck St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Island that had just been spared by Hurricane Irma). One of the deadliest storms to impact the U.S., with numerous indirect deaths in the wake of the storm’s devastation, Maria left the island’s transportation, agriculture, communication and energy infrastructure devastated. Virtually everyone was left without power, and cellular communications were down as well, complicating rescue efforts. Extreme rainfall of up to 37 inches caused widespread flooding and mudslides across the island, and rebuilding is expected to take years.
2. Hurricane Harvey (2017), $133.8 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 89
Hurricanes cause damage due to a combination of wind, storm surge and rain, but the proportions vary. In Hurricane Harvey’s case, it was the extreme rainfall; once the storm lurched ashore near Rockport, Texas, (as a Category 4) in August 2017, it stalled over one of the most densely populated areas of the Gulf Coast.
Per NOAA, the storm was the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in U.S. history — both in scope and peak rainfall amounts — since reliable rainfall records began around the 1880s. A frog-strangling 60 inches fell on Nederland, Texas, but high water levels were widespread, with more than 30 inches of rain falling on 6.9 million people. The result was massive flooding that displaced more than 30,000 people and damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 homes and businesses.
1. Hurricane Katrina (2005), $172.5 Billion in Damage
- Deaths: 1,833
Hurricane Katrina will long be remembered for its cost in lives and dollars, as well as the harder-to-measure human suffering it brought to the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts — in particular, New Orleans.
Striking the northern Gulf Coast as a Category 3 storm, Katrina weakened quickly, but not before bringing with it a storm surge that in some places exceeded 20 feet, overtopping many levees and seawalls meant to protect the low-lying area. About 80% of the city of New Orleans flooded, to varying depths, within a day or so after landfall of the eye. With so many houses destroyed, many who fled never came back; the city’s population is still below its pre-storm levels.
Along the coast, the storm surge was exacerbated by heavy waves, a leftover from when Katrina had reached Category 5 strength while over the Gulf. Coastal structures — including many oil rigs — were battered.