Top Deadliest U.S. Natural Disasters

The Worst Storms & Environmental Disasters in U.S. History

Environmental and natural disasters have claimed the lives of thousands of people in the United States, wiped out entire cities and towns, and destroyed precious historical and genealogical documents. If your family lived in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New England, California, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri, Illinois or Indiana, then your family history may have been changed forever by one of these ten deadliest U.S. disasters.

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A man sitting in a demolished office
Philip and Karen Smith/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images
Estimated death toll: about 8000
The deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history was the hurricane that ripped into the rich, port city of Galveston, Texas, on September 18, 1900. The category 4 storm devastated the island city, killing 1 in 6 residents and destroying most of the buildings in its path. The building which housed the port's immigration records was one of many destroyed in the storm, and few Galveston ships manifests survive for the years 1871-1894.

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Estimated death toll: 3400+
In the dark morning hours of April 18, 1906, the sleeping city of San Francisco was rocked by a massive earthquake. Walls caved in, streets buckled, and gas and water lines broke, allowing residents little time to take cover. The earthquake itself lasted less than a minute, but fires broke out across the city almost immediately, fueled by broken gas lines and a lack of water to put them out. Four days later, the earthquake and subsequent fire left more than half of San Francisco's population homeless, and had killed somewhere between 700 and 3000 people.

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Estimated death toll: 2500+
Coastal residents living along Palm Beach, Florida, were basically prepared for this category 4 hurricane, but it was along the south shores of Lake Okeechobee in the Florida Everglades that most of the 2000+ victims perished. Many were migrant workers working in such an isolated location, that they had no warning of the impending disaster.

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Johnstown, PA Flood - May 31, 1889

Estimated death toll: 2209+
A neglected southwestern Pennsylvania dam and days of rain combined to create one of America's greatest tragedies. The South Fork Dam, built to hold back Lake Conemaugh for the prestigious South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, collapsed on May 31, 1889. More than 20 million tons of water, in a wave reaching more than 70 feet high, swept 14 miles down the Little Conemaugh River Valley, destroying everything in its path, including most of the industrial city of Johnstown.

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Estimated death toll: 2000+
The unofficial name of this Louisiana hurricane (also spelled Chenier Caminanda or Cheniere Caminada) comes from the island-type peninsula, located 54 miles from New Orleans, that lost 779 people to the storm. The devastating hurricane predates modern forecasting tools, but is thought to have had winds approaching 100 miles per hour. It was actually one of two deadly hurricanes that hit the U.S. during the 1893 hurricane season (see below).

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Estimated death toll: 1000 - 2000
It is estimated that the "Great Storm of 1893" that struck the southern South Carolina and northern Georgia coast was at least a Category 4 storm, but there is no way of knowing, since measures of hurricane intensity weren't measured for storms before 1900. The storm killed an estimated 1,000 - 2,000 people, mostly from storm surge affecting the low-lying barrier "Sea Islands" off the Carolina coast.

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Hurricane Katrina - August 29, 2005

Estimated death toll: 1836+
The most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States, Hurricane Katrina was the 11th named storm in the busy 2005 hurricane season. The devastation in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast area cost over 1,800 lives, billions of dollars in damage, and catastrophic loss to the region's rich cultural heritage.

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Estimated death toll: 720
The hurricane dubbed by some as the "Long Island Express" made landfall over Long Island and Connecticut as a category 3 storm on September 21, 1938. The powerful hurricane decimated almost 9,000 buildings and homes, caused over 700 deaths, and reshaped the landscape of the south Long Island shore. The storm caused over $306 million in damage in 1938 dollars, which would equal about $3.5 billion in today's dollars.

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Estimated death toll: 700
Hundreds of people were lost in this August 27th hurricane that struck the east U.S. coast at the juncture of Georgia and South Carolina, causing severe damage to Savannah and Charleston. The storm then moved inland, dissipating on the 29th over northwestern Mississippi, resulting in about 700 deaths.

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Estimated death toll: 695
Widely considered the most powerful and devasting tornado in American history, the Great Tri-State Tornado ripped through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925. It's uninterrupted 219-mile treck killed 695 people, injured more than 2000, destroyed about 15,000 homes, and damaged more than 164 square miles.