Was Katrina the Biggest, the Worst Natural Disaster in U.S. History?

tags: hurricanes, natural disasters

Normand Forgues-Roy is an HNN intern.

More than a month after Katrina the death toll appears to have been far lower than expected (1,003 dead as of Oct. 8th, according to the Times Picayune). Other disasters, of course, have taken a higher toll. But to the media Katrina was the biggest and the most disastrous storm of all time. Worse than Andrew, worse than the 1900 Galveston hurricane, worse than the tsunami of 2004.

Historians have been taking part in the effort to measure Katrina by other natural disasters, comparing it with the Galveston storm, the San Francisco earthquake, the big flood of 1927, the hurricane of the Okeechobee in 1928 and the hurricane of 1935. But now that the winds have died down, let’s have a closer look. How does Katrina measure up?

In an email interview with HNN, Erik Larson, author of Isaac's Storm, stated that probably 10,000 people died in the Galveston hurricane, making it the deadliest hurricane in US history--and obviously deadlier than Katrina. The National Hurricane Center states that 8,000 died, but agrees it was indeed the deadliest. (The San Francisco earthquake killed 3,000.) By the measure of persons killed, therefore, Katrina ranks lower.

Nor does the death toll of Katrina compare with the 1928 hurricane that struck Florida's Lake Okeechobee area, though few Americans have even heard of it . “Three fourths of a century after it struck," wrote Elliott Kleinberg, "to say the storm [of 1928] is still the deadliest weather event ever to strike Florida or the eastern United States does it a disservice. Its official death toll at the time was 1,836. Recently, the National Hurricane Center formally changed the toll to 2,500, not because of new information but as an acknowledgement of what officials said even in 1928: that the 1,836 figure was just too low.”

And the hurricane of 1928 took a greater toll on black people. As Kleinberg noted, the '28 hurricane led to the biggest loss of black people in a single day.

The flood of 1927, which inundated the Mississippi flood plain, was compared to Katrina by historian Pete Daniel on HNN. The facts about the flood are indeed impressive:

  • 16.5 million acres flooded in seven states
  • 637,000 people dislocated
  • $102 million in crop losses
  • 162,000 homes flooded
  • 41,000 buildings destroyed
  • 6,000 boats used in rescue
  • 250 to 500 deaths. 

Measured by acreage, the flood of 1927 had a greater impact than Katrina. But of course much of the flooded area in 1927 was rural and isolated. No city was devastated in 1927 as New Orleans was in 2005--no small thing! And in 1927 637,000 people were displaced; in Katrina more than a million.

In terms of sheer ferocity, Katrina ranks among the worst storms in our history. Like Andrew and Camille and several others it ranked as a Category 5 with winds clocked at more than 150 mph. But Andrew hit Florida as a Category 5. By the time Katrina hit Louisiana it had become a Category 4.

By one incontestable measure Katrina stands out among this nation's historic natural disasters. In dollars and cents Katrina was the worst. The toll is estimated at $200 billion. No other disaster comes close. Andrew (1992) cost $26 billion, Charley (2004) $15 billion, and Ivan (2004) $14 billion. (The San Francisco earthquake cost $400 million in damage in 1906 dollars.)