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.)


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Walter McElligott - 2/26/2006

Yes, i agree, bbut even how many historians know about Peshtigo?
Walt, author of unpublished hx of Chicago fire.

Daniel Sauerwein - 2/22/2006

I must note that a couple of months ago, the National Hurricane Center through new data discovered that Katrina made landfall as a strong category 3 storm.

Bill Hayden - 11/5/2005

One wants to ask whether Katrina was a 'natural' disaster at all. If you build a funnel into an ocean that spawns annual hurricanes, can you really call it anything other than an 'expected event' when one of those storms blows up the funnel?

One wants to wonder, too, whether it would not be better to reexamine the entire Mississippi control project. In his 1989 book "The Control of Nature", John McPhee and the various people he interviewed about the Army Corps of Engineers's project to keep the Mississippi river flowing through New Orleans said: "Hurricanes greatly advance the coastal erosion process, tearing up landscape made weak by the confinement of the river. The danger from the south is even greater than the threat from the north."

In the preceding paragraph, he provides this calculation. "The canal is known as Mr. Go, and shipping has largely ignored it. Mr. Go, having eroded laterally for twenty-five years, is as much as three times its original width. It has devastated twenty-four thousand acres of wetlands, replacing them with open water. A mile of marsh will reduce a coastal-storm-surge wave by about one inch. Where fifty miles of marsh are gone, fifty inches of additional water will inevitably surge. The Corps [of Engineers] has been obliged to deal with this fact by completing the ring of levees around New Orleans, thus creating New Avignon, a walled medieval city accessed by an interstate that jumps over walls." (pp 62-63)

Perhaps it would be more productive to focus not on Katrina, which was, after all, inevitable, but on how we respond to natural, and unnatural, change. Unlike the British, the weather and the ocean will eventually force us to abandon New Orleans. Would the nation be better off planning an orderly retreat instead of waiting for another storm and the consequent repitition of the rout that was the response to Katrina?

What will we call it when the Mississippi finally succeeds at breaching the levees that keep it from heeding gravity? That will be a far more expensive disaster, if that is the appropriate measure of 'worst'. Will it be natural or manmade?

Gregory Jay McKnight - 10/26/2005

On June 1,1889, Americans woke to the news that Johnstown, Pennsylvania had been devastated by the worst flood in the Nation's history. Over 2,200 were dead, with many more homeless. When the full story of the flood came to light, many believed that if this was a "natural" disaster, then surely man was an accomplice.

Mr. Hellmann - 10/24/2005

1927 what was the % of population, dead, dislocated ? There was a storm that dumped a lot of water in the head waters of the cheasapeak that caused loss of fishing n crabing for a few years.

James W Loewen - 10/24/2005

Although it may not measure up, it would be interesting to mention the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin in 1871 (the same year as the great Chicago fire, but much more deadly). Also, the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 merit mention, simply because in terms of sheer force, they outrank all other natural disasters. Few people [and fewer white people] lived near their epicenter then; if a similarly intense 'quake strikes now, San Francisco (and Katrina) would pale in comparison.