Today marks the beginning of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season (which runs until November 30). Throughout the summer we’ll be looking at some of the worst hurricanes in history, in terms of death tolls and damage amounts. Up first is a review of the ten deadliest hurricanes ever spawned in the Atlantic Ocean.
One interesting fact that stands out to me is that unlike the list of the ten deadliest tornadoes, only three of these tropical cyclones occurred after 1950. This is a direct result of improved weather forecasting technology, which can typically allow for days of advanced notice rather than hours. So as a comparison, the infamous Hurricane Katrina, while still dealing a devastating blow to the U.S. Gulf coast, isn’t even in the top 20 in terms of casualties — although the nearly 1,900+ killed is still a tragically large number.
1. The Great Hurricane of 1780
Few meteorological details on this storm are known, but we understand this much — In October 1780 more than 20,000 perished in the Caribbean as it tore through the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Bermuda, and possibly East Florida and some U. S. states. Rep0rts of the day claimed that every tree in Barbados was downed, but not before all being stripped of their bark.
Among the dead were 4,000 French soldiers who drowned near Martinique when their ships were capsized. The soldiers were aboard 40 ships involved in the American Revolution.
2. Hurricane Mitch (1998)
As with many tropical cyclones, most of Mitch’s devastation was due not to fierce winds, but rather to torrential rainfall and flooding. In particular, Honduras (35.89 inches), Guatemala (23.62 inches), and Nicaragua (62.87 inches) were deluged with precipitation. Nearly 20,000 people in the region died, to say nothing of the mass devastation to housing, crops, and infrastructure.
In Honduras, an estimated 70–80% of the transportation infrastructure of the entire country was wiped out, including nearly all bridges and secondary roads. The damage was so great that existing maps were rendered obsolete.
3. The 1900 Galveston hurricane
The hurricane that slammed into Galveston, Texas in September 1900 is still the deadliest one to ever strike the United States. Many of the deaths could have been prevented has the low-lying island of Galveston acted on proposals from some concerned citizenry and erected a protective seawall. The highest point of Galveston was 8.7 feet above sea level; the storm surge from the hurricane was more than 15 feet, enough to wash over the entire island.
When it was all over, an estimated 8,000-12,000 were dead, including one as far away as New York City. Needless to say, construction on the Galveston Seawall began in 1902.
4. Hurricane Fifi (1974)
Funny name aside, Fifi is the second-wettest hurricane to hit Honduras (after Mitch), and killed more than 8,000 people — most of them in Honduras. Nearly a quarter of those fatalities were in the city of Choloma, which lost between 2,800 and 5,000 of its population of 7,000 due to massive flooding.
5. Hurricane San Zenon (1930)
Also known as the 1930 Dominican Republic Hurricane, was a small but powerful Category 4 storm. It made landfall on September 3 near Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, packing peak winds of 155 mph. It cut 20-mile-wide swath of destruction and three whole districts in Santo Domingo. The Red Cross put the death toll at 2,000, although estimates ran as high as 8,000.
6. Hurricane Flora (1963)
With a total death toll of between 7,186 – 8,000, Flora was at the time the deadliest Atlantic hurricane post-Galveston. In addition, agricultural damage to the island of Tobago was so great that they abandoned crops altogether and switched to tourism as their main source of income. Some locations in Cuba received more than 80 inches of rainfall; Santiago de Cuba reported 100.39, the highest measured amount in the history of Cuba.
7. 1776 Pointe-à-Pitre hurricane
As you might expect, little is known about this storm. It struck Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles on September 6, 1776 and by the time it was over more than 6,000 were dead. The cyclone also struck a large convoy of French and Dutch merchant ships, sinking or running aground 60% of the vessels.
8. The Newfoundland Hurricane of 1775
At least 4,000 perished when this storm hit the British colony of Newfoundland (in what is now Canada). Most of the dead were English and Irish sailors, who drowned. The storm is Atlantic Canada’s first recorded hurricane and the country’s deadliest natural disaster.
It is thought that this same storm struck North Carolina and Virginia about a week earlier, and that what hit Newfoundland was the remnant.
9. The Okeechobee hurricane (1928)
This was just the second recorded hurricane to his Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. It’s also the only Cat 5 storm to hit Puerto Rico at that strength. It’s known as the Okeechobee hurricane due to the deaths of at least 2,500 people in South Florida — they died when a storm surge from Lake Okeechobee breached the dike surrounding the lake, flooding an area covering hundreds of square miles.
At least an additional 1,200 in Guadeloupe lost their lives, as well as roughly 300 in Puerto Rico (where this is known as the San Felipe II Hurricane). Total fatalities are estimated to be at least 4,078.
10. The 1909 Monterrey hurricane
An estimated 4,000 people or more in Mexico died when this storm hit in August 1909. Peak winds were measured at 120 mph, a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Half of the city of Monterrey was destroyed, including four city blocks on the south side. 800 died in that area alone. Catastrophic flooding occurred when the reservoir dam near Monterrey burst.
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