12 Worst US Natural Disasters

Any natural disaster is a stark reminder that none of us knows what’s around the corner. From famines to hurricanes and wildfires, countless natural disasters have been recorded in the United States. And another could strike at any time. For example, the third Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (UCERF3)* predicts that there’s a greater than 99% chance of an earthquake of more than M6.7 striking in California in the next 20 years.

While we can’t contain Mother Nature’s fury, we can be as prepared as possible so that, when disaster strikes, we stand the best chance of survival and of helping others.

Note that all estimated damage costs are adjusted for 2024.

1. The Year Without a Summer, 1816

painting after the eruption
Image Credit: Casper David Friedrich.

Death toll: 100,000+

Damage cost: Unknown 

The Year Without a Summer, the famine of 1816 was the result of a volcanic eruption by Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. The terrible eruption caused a massive amount of volcanic dust to be cast into the air. The result of this was a famine that impacted the northeastern United States as well as Eastern Canada. Because of the lingering effects of the eruption, the summer of 1816 was abnormally cold, so few crops grew, and intense frosts and blizzards repeatedly killed what did grow. This lack of food is estimated to have killed over 100,000 people in the United States and Canada.

2. Galveston Hurricane of 1900

Floating wreckage near Texas City Galveston Hurricane 1900
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Death toll: 6,000 – 12,000

Damage cost: $1.3 billion

Known as the Great Galveston Hurricane and sometimes the Great Galveston Flood, the Galveston hurricane of 1900 claimed somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 lives and cost around $1.3 billion in damages. The storm surge flooded Galveston with between 8 and 12 feet of water, and the storm peaked as a category 4, with a sustained wind speed of 145 mph. It left a quarter of the population homeless.

3. 1988-89 North American Drought

Exploration of wooden hull wrecks in the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee during the drought
Image Credit: Gary Bridgman – CC BY 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Death toll: 5,000-10,000

Damage cost: $155.5 billion 

The North American drought of 1988 to 1989 was the most expensive natural disaster before Hurricane Katrina. The estimated death toll is between 5,000 and 10,000 and it cost $155.5 billion in damages. The multi-year drought caused crop failures and intense dust storms, and was exacerbated by two concurrent heat waves that killed a further 17,000 people in the US. The drought affected 45% of the United States over the two year period, with effects lingering into the early 90s.

4. Hurricane Maria, 2017

Vieille Case, Dominica - Morning after Hurricane Maria
Image Credit: Roosevelt Skerrit/Wiki Commons.

Death toll: 3.059

Damage cost: $114.65 billion

Category 5 Hurricane Maria struck the northeastern Caribbean with deadly force in 2017, killing 3,059 people and causing $114.65 billion in damages. It’s the most devastating hurricane to ever strike Dominica and the US Virgin Islands. At its peak, Hurricane Maria reached sustained wind speeds of 175 mph. It’s the 10th strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, and, in terms of damages, it’s the 4th most expensive hurricane on record.

5. 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane

A montage of the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane
Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Death toll: 3,000

Damage cost: $1.25 billion

The fourth deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States, the Okeechobee hurricane killed 3,000 people, mostly in Florida, specifically around Lake Okeechobee. Between the death toll and the $1.25 billion in damages, this hurricane is Florida’s worst-ever natural disaster. It’s also the only category 5 hurricane to ever hit Puerto Rico, where it achieved maximum sustained wind speeds of 160 mph.

6. 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

San Francisco Earthquake of 1906: Ruins in vicinity of Post and Grant Avenue. Looking northeast.
Image Credit: Chadwick, H. D/Wiki Commons.

Death toll: 3,000-6,000

Damage cost: Not fully known

Just after 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18th, 1906, Northern California was struck by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9. Fires broke out in San Francisco shortly after, these burned for several days. Over 3,000 people died, and around 80% of the city was destroyed. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the deadliest earthquake ever recorded in the United States. It’s also the worst natural disaster in California’s history, with the greatest death toll.

7. Johnstown Flood, 1889

1889 view of debris field with Stone Bridge
Image Credit: Langill & Darling/United States Library of Congress.

Death toll: 2.209

Damage cost: $567 million

Known to the locals as the great flood of 1889, the Jones town flood caused $567 million worth of damage after a catastrophic failure at the South Fork Dam. After days of extreme rainfall, the dam finally burst, releasing over 120 billion gallons of water, killing 2,209 people.

8. 1893 Cheniere Caminada Hurricane

Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Death toll: 2,000

Damage cost: Unknown 

The Great October Storm was an extremely powerful hurricane that struck Cheniere Caminada, Louisiana, in October of 1893, killing around 2,000 people. It’s the worst hurricane to ever hit Louisiana and the third deadliest in the U.S. Although the exact cost of damages is unknown, the combination of extreme sustained wind speeds (130 mph) and high storm surge (up to 16 ft) destroyed homes, businesses, and crops.

9. Hurricane Katrina, 2005

New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Image Credit: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Death toll: 1,836

Damage cost: $196.3 billion

Many of us remember the horror and devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This category 5 Atlantic hurricane is the fourth strongest Atlantic hurricane to hit the contiguous United States, killing 1,836 people, mostly in and around New Orleans. It’s the most costly natural disaster to ever hit the United States, causing a total of $196.3 billion in damages. Over 80% of New Orleans flooded and remained underwater for weeks.

10. 1980 Heat Wave

1980 Heat Wave
Image Credit: National Climatic Data Center.

Death toll: 1,700

Damage cost: $74.5 billion

The heatwave of 1980 was an unprecedented period of high temperatures and drought that resulted in an estimated 1,700 lives lost and $74.5 billion in damages. Multiple areas suffered extreme and prolonged heat, with some areas having sustained temperatures of over 100F (38C) for 17 days or more.

Memphis, Tennessee, sweltered through 108F (42C) temperatures during a 15-day period of temperatures above 100F (38C). Remember, in 1980, 60% of homes in the U.S. didn’t have air conditioning, so most people had no relief from the heat.

11. Peshtigo Wildfire, 1871

The Peshtigo Fire showing people seeking refuge in the Peshtigo River, 1871
Image Credit: G. J. Tisdale/Wiki Commons.

Death toll: 1,500-2,500

Damage cost: $122 million

In October 1871, a forest fire swept through northeastern Wisconsin and parts of Michigan’s upper peninsula. It burned through 1.5 million acres to become the deadliest wildfire on record. It killed an estimated 1,500 and 2,500 people. However, the continued discovery of mass graves in the affected areas suggests that the death toll may have been even higher. It killed at least five times more people than the Great Chicago fire, occurred on the same day, and caused over $122 million in damages, but is mostly forgotten.

12. Sea Islands Hurricane, 1893

1893 Sea Islands hurricane track
Image Credit: National Hurricane Center.

Death toll: 1,000-2,000

Damage cost: Unknown

The 7th deadliest hurricane to strike the United States, the Sea Islands hurricane killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people, mostly as a result of the 16 ft storm surge. The sustained wind speed was around 120 mph when the storm made landfall near Savannah, Georgia. This storm solidified Dunbar Davis’ reputation as a national hero after rescuing four ships in his role as Keeper of the United States Life Saving Service.


17 Most Devastating Tornadoes In History

Two tornadoes touching down
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Nature’s fury is terrifying, and tornadoes are among the most deadly natural phenomena. These 17 deadly tornadoes highlight nature’s power and the resilience of humans in the aftermath of such devastation.

24 Most Devastating Blizzards in US History

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

For preppers, understanding the power and impact of historic blizzards is key to being prepared for future winter emergencies. Each of these historic snowstorms teaches valuable lessons about resilience, planning, and survival. The more prepared we are, the better our chances of survival in an emergency scenario.

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New york at night
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

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Becky is a wildlife enthusiast and pet and livestock care expert with a diploma in canine nutrition. With over a decade of experience in animal welfare, Becky lends her expertise to Simple Family Preparedness through insightful info about pets, livestock, bee keeping, and the practicalities of homesteading.

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