Every year from June to November, hurricanes emerge from the waters off the United States coast, but relatively few make landfall and cause significant damage. These are the worst of them.
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Hurricane season may seem like just another phase of the year, but to coast-dwellers, it means huge storms are stirring in the Atlantic Ocean—and some are worse than others. With a little help from our storm-chasing friends at The Weather Channel, we’re counting down to the worst hurricane to hit the United States in recorded history.
The small-but-mighty Hurricane Charley played dirty, racking up nearly $20 billion in damages. After tearing through Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, the storm accelerated as it blew across the Florida Peninsula, sending 79 mph winds into Orlando and a tornado through the south side of Daytona Beach. And then it came back for seconds, making landfall in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, before eventually slowing down in southeast Virginia.
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Long Island and southern New England bore the brunt of this Atlantic-borne tempest, which unleashed 180 mph winds and destroyed 150 homes in Westhampton, New York. The Category 3 storm’s surge and wind gusts yielded unusually high tides that swallowed up Long Island’s south side and rose to 14 feet (even inside the city!) in Providence, Rhode Island.
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The second-costliest storm in U.S. history took no prisoners, rearing its ugly head in 24 states, from Florida to Maine and then across the Appalachian Mountains to Michigan and Wisconsin, though New Jersey and New York saw the worst of it. Sandy’s winds alone cut the power of 8.5 million people in the Northeast, while its storm surge and screaming waves damaged or destroyed 650,000 homes. Estimates for the damage Sandy caused ring in at more than $50 billion.
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This holiday hurricane was a most unpleasant surprise: The storm, which tore through the Keys on September 2, 1935, with 185 mph winds and a storm surge of more than 20 feet, had been only a Category 1 hurricane the day before when it spun across the Bahamas. By the time it got to the U.S., the hurricane had changed its initially mellow tune for something far more sinister.
The monster Category 5 storm terrorized Puerto Rico first, before turning its unwanted attentions to south Florida, where it made landfall near West Palm Beach with 145 mph winds. While the hurricane destroyed around 1,700 homes in the city, the area surrounding Lake Okeechobee saw far worse damage: The lake overflowed, thanks to storm surge, and flooded the surrounding area in 10 to 15 feet of water. Like later Hurricane Charley, the storm crossed Florida before making landfall for a second time, this time in Edisto Island, South Carolina.
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Camille was so strong that no one knows exactly how fast its wind speeds were, as they destroyed all wind-measuring equipment at the heart of the storm. Camille was compact, so the storm surge of 24 feet (then the highest ever recorded) in southern Mississippi was relatively focused and caused a narrower swath of destruction than a larger storm may have. Camille’s destructive path caused $1.4 billion in damages.
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As a relatively small hurricane, Andrew still packed a punch: When it made landfall on Florida’s southeastern coast, it was estimated to be a Category 5 hurricane, though it had weakened to a Category 3 by the time it hit Louisiana’s coastline. What made Andrew dangerous were its extreme wind speeds. About 127,000 homes in Florida were damaged by these winds, leading to an estimated total cost of $26.5 billion, then the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
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The true tragedy of the 1926 Miami Hurricane was that, as the eye passed over the city, residents thought the storm was over and left their shelters. The worst part of the hurricane, with 10-foot storm surge, was yet to come. Inland, high winds blew water from Lake Okeechobee toward the shore and the town of Moore Haven, which was almost completely flooded and remained so for weeks after the storm. Damages were estimated at $105 million—more than $1 trillion in today’s dollars.
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Known as the deadliest hurricane in the country’s history, the Galveston Hurricane hit Galveston Island, on Texas’ eastern coast, in 1900. The hurricane missed Florida and swirled over the Gulf of Mexico with winds at more than 120 miles per hour. Water levels reportedly rose to more than 20 feet as the hurricane reached Category 4 strength. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed, and damage was estimated at more than $30 million—that’s almost $900 million in today’s dollars.
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Katrina hit Florida and the central Gulf Coast with a double whammy: Like many storms, its winds knocked down trees and damaged buildings. But the storm surge caused the most damage, as it peaked at an estimated 28 feet in parts of Mississippi. Most memorably, this surge breached the levees and floodwalls of New Orleans, causing catastrophic flooding in 80 percent of the city and a total of $108 billion in damages in all areas affected—the most costly hurricane in history.