What Were the Worst Hurricanes in History?

There are several ways one can measure the magnitude of a hurricane, including by death toll, cost and strength. However, data becomes less available the further back in time one goes, so it is difficult to name a single hurricane that holds the title of “worst.”

The storm that caused the most deaths in recorded history was the “Great Hurricane” of 1780 in the Lesser Antilles. More than 20,000 people died, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency ranks Hurricane Mitch, which occurred in 1998 and killed more than 9,000 people in Central America, in second place. Mitch is followed in the ranking by Hurricane Fifi of 1974, which left more than 8,000 in Honduras dead, and a hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and took around 8,000 lives.

In terms of cost, NOAA lists Katrina as the costliest hurricane to strike the United States since 1851, causing $180 billion in damage. That 2005 hurricane was followed by Harvey ($143.8 billion) and Maria ($103.5 billion) in 2017, Sandy ($80 billion) in 2012 and Ida ($76.5 billion) in 2014.

Scientists have also developed various rating systems to calculate the intensity of a hurricane, such as the Saffir-Simpson Scale, which assigns hurricanes to five categories based on wind speed, and the Hurricane Severity Index, which also takes into account the area potentially affected by the winds. In assessing the strength of a hurricane, other indicators, such as barometric pressure and storm surge, may also be considered. Because of the variety of systems and metrics, each approach may produce different outcomes.