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What was the Largest Hurricane to Hit the United States?

Definition of "Largest Hurricane"

Wind speed, cost, deaths, intensity and width are some of the ways to define the largest hurricane. If using wind speed, intensity or width as the definition, it is necessary to explain whether the measurement was recorded at landfall or was the highest measurement recorded in the hurricane's life cycle.

Deadliest Hurricanes in United States History

The largest loss of life from a hurricane is often caused by storm surge and flooding rather than the winds. Do not underestimate a lower category hurricane! None of the top five deadliest hurricanes in United States history was a Category 5 hurricane at landfall.

Deadliest Hurricane to Hit the United States

The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was the deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States and caused between 8000 and 12000 deaths. The storm reached the Texas coast south of Galveston on September 8 as a Category 4 hurricane with a storm surge of 8 to 15 feet. The lack of warning and the high storm surge caused this storm to have the highest death toll of any United States hurricane.

Second Deadliest Hurricane to Hit the United States

The 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane which claimed 2500-3000 lives was the second deadliest hurricane in United States history. Most of the deaths from this hurricane were caused by a lake surge of 6 to 9 feet that inundated areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

Third Deadliest Hurricane to Hit the United States

Hurricane Katrina of 2005, the third deadliest hurricane in United States history, killed at least 1500 people. Katrina made landfall in the United States at three different locations. Katrina's first land fall was near the Miami-Dade / Broward county line in Florida, dropping 10 to 14 inches of rain, just after reaching hurricane status. After crossing Florida it strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall near Buras, Louisiana and then made landfall again near the Louisiana / Mississippi border as a Category 3 hurricane. Katrina's highest storm surge of 25 to 28 feet occurred along the Mississippi coast. Also, this storm dropped 8 to 12 inches of rain inland from the northern Gulf coast and spawned thirty-three tornadoes.

Five Deadliest Hurricanes in U.S. History
Hurricane Year Category Deaths
Great Galveston Hurricane 1900 4 8000-12000
Okeechobee Hurricane 1928 4 2500-3000
Hurricane Katrina 2005 3 1500+
Louisiana Hurricane 1893 4 1100-1400
S. Carolina / Georgia 1893 3 1000-2000
Data from NOAA.

Damage from the Great Galvesten Hurricane
location map for ChaitÚn volcano
Damage from the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was caused by the hurricane and resulting storm surge. This was the greatest natural disaster in terms of loss of life in U.S. history. (top photo) So many people were killed that horse carts were used to transport bodies through the streets of Galveston. The bodies were placed on barges and buried at sea. Others were burned in huge funeral pyres. (bottom photo) Photos and captions from NOAA

Highest Wind Speed at Landfall in US History

Wind Speed
1 74-95
2 96-110
3 111-130
4 131-155
5 155+
Meteorologists use sustained wind speed to determine what category a hurricane is. To the left is a table showing what wind speeds define the different storm categories. The wind speed must last for over one minute to be considered a sustained wind while a gust is the highest winds for a three second period with in the one minute sustained reading. Most of the highest wind speeds at landfall are estimated because of damage to or lack of wind recording insturments.

Hurricane With the Highest Wind Speed at Landfall in United States History

Hurricane Camille of 1969 had the highest wind speed at landfall at an estimated 190 miles per hour when it struck the Mississippi coast. This windspeed at landfall is the highest ever recorded worldwide. Actual maximum sustained winds will never be known because the hurricane destroyed all the wind-recording instruments in the landfall area. Columbia, Mississippi, located 75 miles inland, reported 120 mph sustained winds.

Hurricane With the Second Highest Wind Speed at Landfall in United States History

Hurricane Andrew holds the title of the hurricane with the second highest recorded wind speeds at landfall with winds estimated at 167 miles per hour as it crossed south Florida. Many of the instruments for measuring wind speeds were destroyed by the hurricane which leaves the actual sustained wind speeds unknown.

Hurricane With the Third Highest Wind Speed at Landfall in United States History

The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane had estimated winds of 161 mile per hour, the third highest wind speed at landfall of any hurricane to strike the United States. The wind speed is estimated, using hurricanes with similar pressure readings at landfall, because of the lack of wind instruments at the time.

Five Hurricanes With the Highest Wind Speed
Hurricane Year Category Wind Speed (mph)
Hurricane Camille 1969 5 190
Hurricane Andrew 1992 5 167
"Labor Day" Hurricane 1935 5 161
Indianola Hurricane 1886 4 155
Hurricane Charley 2004 4 150
Data from NOAA.

Satellite Image of Hurricane Camille
ChaitÚn lava dome
This is a black and white satellite image of Hurricane Camille from 1969 while in the Gulf of Mexico before it hit Mississippi and Louisiana. Image by NOAA.
Satellite Image of Hurricane Katrina
Plate tectonics of ChaitÚn Volcano
Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina showing it's massive width while in the Gulf of Mexico before hitting New Orleans, Louisiana and Mississippi. Image by NOAA.

Costliest Hurricane in United States History

It is a common misconception that a lower category hurricane is less of a threat than a higher category hurricane. For example, Hurricane Katrina was the costly hurricane in United States history and it was only a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall. Hurricane Andrew was the only Category 5 hurricane to make the list of the top five costliest hurricanes to strike the United States.

Costliest Hurricane to Hit the United States

Hurricane Katrina of 2005 was easily the costliest hurricane in United States history with property damages over $81 billion. Storm surge along the Mississippi coast completely destroyed many structures with damage extending several miles inland. Katrina's storm surge topped and breached levees in the New Orleans metropolitan area resulting in the inundation of much of the city and its eastern suburbs. Wind damage from Katrina extended well inland into northern Mississippi and Alabama as well as in Miami-Dade and Broward counties of Florida.

Second Costliest Hurricane to Hit the United States

Hurricane Andrew caused $26.5 billion in damage with $25.5 billion in south Florida and $1 billion in Louisiana. Hurricane Andrew made landfall in south Florida on August 24, bringing with it a 17 foot storm surge and an 8 foot storm surge when it hit Louisiana on August 26.

Third Costliest Hurricane to Hit the United States

Hurricane Wilma, the third costliest hurricane in United States history, struck Cape Romano, Florida on October 24 as a Category 3 hurricane and caused widespread damage estimated at $16.8 billion in southern Florida. At one point in Wilma's life cycle it had a record low barometric pressure of 882mb and a 2 to 4 mile wide eye.

Five Costliest Hurricanes in U.S. History
Hurricane Year Category Cost
Hurricane Katrina 2005 3 84.6 Billion
Hurricane Andrew 1992 5 48.1 Billion
Hurricane Wilma 2005 3 21.5 Billion
Hurricane Charley 2004 4 16.3 Billion
Hurricane Ivan 2004 3 15.4 Billion
The costs in the table are adjusted to 2006 dollars. Data from NOAA.

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