weather The Deadliest, Most Destructive Hurricanes Ever  

Jeff Moore
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Hurricanes can instill fear in the public due to their ability to level entire towns, throwing communities into turmoil. When a hurricane strikes, the lives of people and animals settled along the shores are threatened by powerful winds and strong waters. Some of the strongest hurricanes in history have absolutely devastated thousands of residents. While meteorologists do their best to predict such storms, and emergency officials try to encourage prompt evacuation, you can only do so much to prevent death, damage, and other tragedies when a natural disaster strikes. Sometimes, inefficient bureaucratic processes lead to poor planning and a lack of timely warning, resulting in a high number fatalities. Other times, despite the best efforts of all involved, a storm is simply too unpredictable to manage effectively. The world's biggest hurricanes will remind you to be thankful for your shelter and loved ones, as our planet is at times tremendously dangerous and unexpected weather patterns can suddenly disrupt stability. 

What is the largest hurricane ever recorded? The Great Hurricane of 1780 caused the most deaths, resulting in over 20,000 lives lost. However, other less deadly hurricanes have wrought unspeakable damage to infrastructure, leading to massive displacement, job loss, and economic upheaval. The destruction and death wrought by the world's most destructive hurricanes is always devastating, but you often see communities come together in the aftermath to rebuild. While always tragic, these types of natural disasters can be a testament to the enduring willpower of people across the globe.  

To get some sense of the proportion of the damage caused by these storms, here's a look back at the most destructive hurricanes ever recorded - ranging from the 1700s to the most recent storms. 

If you're interested in more natural disasters, check out the worst tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and earthquakes in history. 

The Great Hurricane (1780)

The Great Hurricane (1780) is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Deadliest, Most Destructive Hurricanes Ever
Photo: WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Death Toll: Over 20,000 

Category: Undetermined 

Areas Affected: The Caribbeans, Barbados  

Due to the fact it took place before modern storm-tracking technology came about, not much is known about the Great Hurricane in 1780. Its exact category and origin point remain unknown, but it struck down on the Caribbean on October 1780. The hurricane likely struck down in Barbados in October 10 before making its way across the Caribbean, causing widespread death and property damage. In addition to killing thousands of Caribbean residents, British and French warships navigating the coast of the Caribbean were lost in the storm. 

Hurricane Mitch (1998)

Hurricane Mitch (1998) is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Deadliest, Most Destructive Hurricanes Ever
Photo: NOAA/WikiMedia Commons/Public Domain

Death Toll: Over 19,325

Category: 5

Areas Affected: Honduras, Swan Islands, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua 

Hurricane Mitch began as a tropical storm but developed into hurricane status by October 24, 1998. The storm struck down on both the Swan Islands and Honduras. The hurricane proceeded to move through Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, causing over 19,000 deaths and an incredible amount of damage. 

The bulk of the damage occurred in Nicaragua and Honduras, where heavy rainfall caused flash floods and landslides. Over 20% of Honduras's population ended up homeless due to heavy rains. Infrastructural damage was so severe, existing road maps in the country became essentially useless. In Nicaragua, over 23,900 homes were destroyed as well as hundreds of schools and bridges. 

Galveston Hurricane (1900)

Galveston Hurricane (1900) is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Deadliest, Most Destructive Hurricanes Ever
Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Public Domain

Death Toll: 6,000 to 12,000

Category: 4

Areas Affected: Gulf of Mexico, Cuba, United States (Texas)

On September 4th, US Weather Bureau officials received a warning saying a large tropical storm had just passed Cuba and was headed west across the Gulf of Mexico. Officials underestimated the storm's power for several reasons. First, the Weather Bureau inaccurately predicted the storm would pass along Florida and then head to New England. The bureau director refused to accept information from Cuba for political reasons, which contributed to the misinformation and ultimately erroneous predictions regarding the hurricane's course. No one realized, until it was too late to issue an adequate warning, the storm was headed to Galveston, Texas. 

In 1900, Galveston was only about nine feet above sea level. When the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 made landfall on September 8th, it brought a 15-foot tall storm surge that flooded the entire city. The Galveston Hurricane is the deadliest natural disaster to ever hit the US. While the death toll remains debated, estimates fall between 6,000 and 12,000 people. The storm went down in history as a lesson that political squabbles - such as the one with Cuba - should be set aside in the interest of public safety. 

Hurricane Flora (1963)

Hurricane Flora (1963) is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Deadliest, Most Destructive Hurricanes Ever
Photo: National Hurricane Center/WikiMedia Commons/Public Domain

Death Toll: 7,186

Category: 4

Areas Affected: Caribbean, Haiti, Cuba

Hurricane Flora was first identified as a convection - a mild transfer of heat via fluid movement - in September 1963. It eventually morphed into a Tropical Storm and then into a Category 4 hurricane. Flora ravaged the Caribbean, Haiti, and Cuba throughout September and October as it touched down on land, causing over 7,000 deaths during its 17 day run. 

In addition to causing a sizable death toll, Flora caused major damage to crops and infrastructure. Landslides buried entire towns in Haiti and flooding took out fields of coffee and banana crops. Flooding also caused great damage to crops in Cuba, and destroyed much of the country's transportation infrastructure.