The Most Expensive Weather Disasters in America

Greg Emerson

Hurricane Irene is heading up the East Coast, bringing violent wind and rain as America’s first major storm of hurricane season. Coastal residents are racing to prepare their homes and businesses for what could be a destructive and costly storm.

A look at the worst disasters of the past 30 years reveals 99 natural disasters whose damage costs surpassed $1 billion from 1980—2010, according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), which tracks natural disasters, response efforts and associated costs. There have been nine additional natural disasters already in 2011 that have topped $1 billion in damages.

Here are the 10 most expensive natural disasters to hit America. The statistics came from a variety of U.S. government agencies, state emergency management agencies and insurance industry estimates. They have all been adjusted to 2007 dollars.

Most Expensive: Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Photo: NOAA

Damages: $133.8 Billion

By far the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, Hurricane Katrina impacted American life in ways that are still being felt today. The hurricane first ran aground as a Category 1 storm near Miami, but strengthened to a "strong Category 3" as it moved west, hitting the Gulf Coast in several spots in Mississippi and Louisiana. The severe storm surge exceeded an estimated 25 feet in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the failure of the levee system that resulted sent millions of people to higher ground. The storm took approximately 1,833 lives, and the economic costs of almost $134 billion put this disaster in a category of its own.

2nd Most Expensive: Drought/Heat Wave, 1988

Photo: USGS

Damages: $71.2 Billion

Eight years later, another drought and associated heatwave hit the central and eastern U.S., in the summer of 1988. In Pennsylvania, summer temperatures were the highest in 100 years, with 15 consecutive days of 90—degree weather in early July. The estimated 5,000—10,000 lives that were lost as a result — mostly older people who succumbed to heat stroke — are on the scale of the 1980 drought, but the economic costs for agriculture were much more severe. Estimates put losses for the heatwave at more than $71 billion.

3rd Most Expensive: Drought/Heat Wave, 1980

Photo: USGS

Damages: $55.4 Billion

It's hard to talk about the severity of the 1980 heatwave that struck the central and eastern U.S. in the summer of that year, as the estimated 10,000 deaths attributed to it (many from sand— and windstorms) go far beyond calculable costs. Numerous temperature records were set that that summer in Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, with Dallas experiencing 42 straight days of temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Economic losses to agriculture and related industries came to more than $55 billion, making this the third most expensive weather disaster in recent U.S. history.

4th Most Expensive: Hurricane Andrew, 1992

Photo: NOAA

Damages: $40 Billion

Our first Category 5 hurricane on the list, Hurricane Andrew slammed into Dade County, Fla., and then weakened to a Category 3 before making landfall a second time in Louisiana in August 1992. The massive winds destroyed more than 25,000 homes and damaged more than 100,000 more, causing about $40 billion in losses, as well as 61 deaths — 23 of which were attributed directly to the disaster, the rest coming from its after—effects.

5th Most Expensive: Midwest Flooding, 1993

Photo: Missouri Highway and Transportation Department

Damages: $30.2 Billion

Heavy rains in the summer of 1993 caused severe flooding in the central states that claimed 48 human lives in addition to the more than $30 billion in economic costs. The damage was worst along the Mississippi river in Missouri, which experienced record flooding — levels hit 19.6 feet above flood stage in St. Louis. Record levels were also measured for the Missouri (reaching 17.5 feet above flood stage in Kansas City) and Kansas rivers (reaching 22 feet above flood stage). The flooding also left Des Moines without water for 12 days, the largest American city to go without water for so long.

6th Most Expensive: Hurricane Ike, 2008

Photo: NOAA

Damages: $27 Billion

Texas was again the victim in 2008 when Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 hurricane, made landfall in Galveston in September after having passed over Cuba as a Category 3. The storm surge of up to 13 feet caused flooding that extended from Galveston to Louisiana and the other coastal states, and the damage done to offshore oil rigs, pipelines, and refineries caused significant fuel shortages that placed the damage from the storm at around $27 billion. What's more, 112 deaths were credited to the storm when the dozens of missing people after the event were accounted for; most of the victims were in Texas.

7th Most Expensive: Hurricane Rita, 2005

Photo: NOAA

Damages: $17.1 Billion

Hurricane Rita — hit the southern coasts of Texas and Louisiana in September 2005. While in the Gulf of Mexico it reached Category 5, and while it slowed before hitting land, the powerful storm surge and high winds caused the same amount of monetary damage as Wilma. But the toll in human lives was significantly higher: 119 people died from the storm, and most were deemed indirect deaths related to evacuations rather than the storm itself (car accidents, crimes, fires, illness, etc.).

8th Most Expensive: Hurricane Wilma, 2005

Photo: NOAA

Damages: $17.1 Billion

While the Gulf Coast was still reeling from massive Hurricane Rita (see next slide) and Hurricane Katrina (later slide), Hurricane Wilma hit southwest Florida as a Category 3 hurricane in October 2005, during the most active hurricane season since 1933. While out to sea it reached Category 5 strength and recorded the lowest pressure ever in the Atlantic basin, though it weakened a bit before making landfall. Still, it decimated parts of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, flooded parts of Havana, Cuba, and eventually caused severe flooding in southern Florida that caused more than $17 billion in damages and claimed an estimated 35 lives.

9th Most Expensive: Hurricane Charley, 2004

Photo: NOAA

Damages: $16.5 Billion

Just one month before Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Charley — a more intense, Category 4 storm — hit the coast of Florida in August and caused more than $16 billion in damages. The destruction was mostly confined to Florida, where 25 of the state's 67 counties were declared federal disaster areas. The Carolinas also sustained some damage as Charley tracked up the East Coast, making its final landfall on Long Island as a tropical storm. The toll in human life reached 35.

10th Most Expensive: Hurricane Ivan, 2004

Photo: NOAA

Damages: $15.4 Billion

In September 2004, a Category 3 hurricane hit the coast of Alabama, causing flooding and intense wind damage in Alabama, Florida and a number of southern states, as more than 100 tornadoes were reported inland. In addition to damages in the billions of dollars, Hurricane Ivan claimed at least 57 lives in the U.S., with 72 additional fatalities in the Caribbean, where the storm damaged 90% of the houses on Grenada and "nearly every building" on Grand Cayman, according to the NCDC report.


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