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The 10 Deadliest Disasters In American History


COVID-19 is officially omnipresent. It’s a part of every conversation, news broadcast, social media post, and internet “water cooler chat.”

As the days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months, it seems foreign to even think about what we did before we quarantined. Driving to work, going to restaurants, and watching March Madness all seem a world away now.

But before this life-altering pandemic, there have been other disasters. Hurricanes. Fires. Terrorist attacks. Floods. Dozens of different man-made and natural disasters of all flavors, wreaking havoc and claiming lives.

Because we’ve exclusively had the coronavirus under the microscope for the last few months, I thought it would be interesting to widen our focus to look at some of the other disasters our nation has known. In the name of widening the focus from our current situation, I specifically haven’t included pandemics or epidemics on this list. Wars have also been excluded.

Key Takeaways and Lessons from the Past

Looking over the list of catastrophes, it’s clear that death comes in lots of flavors. There are some things within our ability to control, and others that just aren’t.

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 struck suddenly and was unprecedented. The Pearl Harbor or September 11th attacks might’ve been known or predicted by people with special intel, but to the average Joe, again, these came as a complete surprise.

On the other hand, hurricanes hit the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic coastal areas every year. Other recurring disasters include late summer wildfires that ravage the Western U.S., or Nor’easter storms in New England and Mid-Atlantic. If you live where there are somewhat predictable weather patterns and a precedent for disasters, use this field data to prepare yourself. There are some basic recommendations about disaster preparation at the end of the list.

Galveston Hurricane of 1900

Year: 1900

Fatalities: Estimated 6,000 – 12,000

What Happened: What started off as a tropical storm that hit some islands in the Caribbean, intensified into a category-four hurricane that made landfall on Sept. 8, just south of Houston, Texas. It continued northeastward as an extratropical storm throughout the Midwest, New England, and eastern Canada before it finally re-entered the North Atlantic. It included hurricane-force winds, lightning and thunderstorms, storm surge, and flooding.


  • Official estimates place the property damage between $28 and $35.4 million (as much as $142.7 billion in 2020 dollars).
  • Although it’s been more than 100 years since the Galveston Hurricane, it remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

North American Drought

Years: 1988-1989

Fatalities: Estimated 4,800 – 17,000

What Happened: Over the space of two years, severe drought throughout 45 percent of the United States brought deadly heat waves, wildfires, and dust storms. Property damage, crop damage, and livestock casualties all occurred at scale. Due to the near-nationwide crop damage, commodity prices experienced record increases.


San Francisco Earthquake (and Fire) of 1906

Year: 1906

Fatalities: 3,000-plus

What Happened: On April 18, 1906, a 7.9 earthquake struck the coast of Northern California, in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, several fires broke out that devastated the city for days, destroying 80 percent of San Francisco, and amplifying the death toll to more than 3,000 casualties.

As traumatic as the actual earthquake was, the subsequent fires were even more destructive. Fires from ruptured gas mains destroyed 25,000 buildings in the Mission District and surrounding area. Architecture professor Stephen Sobriner maintains that the fires caused at least 90 percent of the total destruction of the incident. Widespread looting and riots among evacuees also contributed to the chaos and damage.


  • Property loss estimates of $235 to $400 million ($6.7 to $11.5 billion in 2020 dollars).
  • Loss of museums, laboratories, and significant research.
  • Rebuilding of University of California.
  • To this day, the quake remains the deadliest in U.S. history.

September 11 Attacks

Year: 2001

Fatalities: 2,977 (victim fatalities)

What Happened: On September 11, 2001, four coordinated terrorist attacks resulted in the damage or destruction of the Pentagon, the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, 7 World Trade Center, and 10 other nearby buildings. The combined death toll of the four different attacks was 2,977.

Due to the destruction of the World Trade Center and other infrastructure in the financial district of New York City, Wall Street was closed until September 17, causing a blow to New York’s economy and the global markets.


1928 Okeechobee Hurricane

Year: 1928

Fatalities: 2,500 in U.S. (4,112 in total)

What Happened: On September 6, 1928, a category-five hurricane made landfall on the east coast of Florida, and claimed the lives of 2,500 people in the United States. It also claimed hundreds of lives and seriously damaged property on the nearby islands of Guadalupe, Puerto Rico, Martinique, Montserrat, and St. Nevis. At least 2,500 people drowned, and lots of other property damage and resulting displacement followed.


  • Estimated $100 million in total damages ($1.5 billion in 2020).
  • Well-constructed homes with strong shutters did not suffer nearly the level of devastation that other homes did. As a result, state and city building codes improved.

Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor

Year: 1941

Fatalities: 2,467

What Happened: Japanese aircraft and submarines launched a preemptive strike on the U.S. naval base in Honolulu, Hawaii. Just before 8:00 a.m. on Dec. 7, the Pearl Harbor naval base was attacked by 353 Japanese aircraft, resulting in four battleships being sunk, and four more being damaged. Six other ships were also damaged or sunk and 188 aircraft were destroyed, as well as other infrastructure. 1,178 people were also wounded.


  • U.S. declaration of war against Japan, Germany, and Italy, formally entering World War II.
  • Nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • Internment of roughly 127,000 Japanese Americans.

Johnstown Flood

Year: 1889

Fatalities: 2,209

What Happened: On May 31, 1889, after several days of consistent rainfall, the South Fork Dam of the Little Conemaugh River broke. Its failure resulted in the release of 14.5 million cubic feet of water, killing 2,209 people and doing roughly $17 million worth of damage.

Although some people were able to get to high ground with the little warning they had, many were trapped where they were, or otherwise unable to escape. Much of the damage of the flood was done by the debris that was swept up in the pathway of the oncoming flood—trees, houses, bridges, livestock, and more—so the effect was not only a rush of floodwater, but also one of hurling projectiles.


  • Estimated $17 million worth of damage ($489 million in 2020 dollars).
  • First major disaster relief effort of the newly formed American Red Cross.
  • When survivors were unable to collect damages from the dam owners, legislative changes were made to shift the criteria of responsibility from a “blame” basis to a strict “liability” basis.

Cheniere Caminada Hurricane

Year: 1893

Fatalites: 2,000

What Happened: This devastating hurricane struck southeastern Louisiana with 135 m.p.h. winds in early October 1893. The island of Cheniere Caminada has a principal town that bears the same name. The town had only 1,500 residents, and lost 779 of them.

Many ships and vessels throughout coastal Louisiana and Mississippi were sunk, and the orange and rice crops of the region were utterly devastated. After the hurricane was over, it was discovered that a single damaged home was all that remained of the town of Cheniere Caminada.


1980 Heat Wave

Year: 1980

Fatalities: 1,700

What Happened: Beginning in June of 1980, the temperatures reached 90F almost every single day in much of the central and southern United States. During this time, Memphis, Tennessee reached a record high of 108 F, Kansas City climbed over 100F for 17 days straight, and Dallas hit 113 for two days in a row. To make matters worse, the high-pressure weather system that induced many of these high temps also inhibited thunderstorm development, which caused a drought and intensified conditions.


Sultana Shipwreck

Year: 1865

Fatalities: 1,700

What Happened: The Sultana was a steamboat on the Mississippi River that was designed for a maximum of 376 people. On April 27, the boat was overloaded by more than five times that limit, with a total of 2,137 people on board.

Many of the passengers were recently released prisoners of war who were being held in Alabama and needed to return to the north. Because of a greedy and opportunistic captain, the Sultana was overloaded, and three of the boat’s four boilers exploded. The boat burned and sank near Memphis, Tennessee, and 1,700 people died by drowning or hypothermia in the icy waters of the Mississippi.


  • The death toll of this shipwreck makes it the biggest maritime disaster in the history of the United States.
  • In 2015, a Sultana museum was constructed in Marion, Arkansas in memoriam.

Preparations that Matter

There are some baseline preparations that just always make sense, and are handy to have in any disaster, no matter the specific situation. Included in these are:

  • Food storage and a water security plan
  • Emergency savings and reserves
  • Prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, and other general medical supplies
  • Personal protection weapons and training
  • A simple survival kit or bug-out bag (in the case of displacement or evacuation)
  • Basic home readiness supplies:
    • Gas and water shutoff tools
    • Earthquake straps for furnaces, water heaters, and furniture
    • Fire extinguishers
    • Chainsaw
    • Basic hand tools
  • Situational awareness: performing an honest audit of the threats you face
  • Physical fitness and healthy habits. Keep in mind that between 40 and 50 percent of Americans die from heart disease and cancer.
  • Adequate insurance: health, life, and property (particularly if you have a unique situation such as earthquakes, floods, etc.).

It remains to be seen just exactly how devastating the COVID-19 pandemic will end up being, or how it will compare to pandemics of the past. Almost certainly more critical to be seen is how the economic aftermath will unfold, which could last years.

Just like other disasters, all we can do is what lies within our ability to control. We don’t usually know where the next boogie man will come from, but we know he will come. While everyone is mortal, a solid foundation of personal preparedness gives everybody a better chance to be on the right side of the odds the next time around.

*Monetary conversions to show dollar amounts in relative 2020 terms were done using this calculator.