The Atlantic’s Great Tropical Cyclones
by: Eric Brown
“White are the decks with foam; the winds aloud Howl o’er the masts, and sing through every shroud: Pale, trembling, tir’d, the sailors freeze with fears; And instant death on every wave appears.”
Homer – The Illiad
Great Hurricane, October 1780 – The 1780 storm, known simply as “the Great Hurricane”, is currently accepted as the deadliest Atlantic hurricane of all-time. It left most of the Lesser Antilles in ruins and killed as many as 28,500 people.
It was the waning days of the American Revolution and the tide was finally beginning to turn in favor of the revolutionaries. Just three days earlier, Patriot troops won a resounding victory against southern Loyalists in the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina. From that point on, Loyalist factions never made a significant impact on the war and British forces were increasingly on their heels.
While all of this was going on, the British and French navies had gathered in the Caribbean, establishing their colonial islands as a base of operations. The French had entered the war two years earlier on the side of the Americans, renewing their longstanding acrimony with the British. Indeed both sides had fought skirmishes in the Caribbean while the war raged on the American mainland.
The Great Hurricane was likely a Cape Verde storm, forming near or not far west of the Cape Verde Islands in early October. This would be an incredibly rare occurrence. Since reliable records began in 1851, only one major hurricane has formed in the deep tropical Atlantic between the Lesser Antilles and Cape Verde after the end of September (in 1881). As it approached the Windward Islands, the storm exploded into a monster likely near Category 5 intensity and slowed to a crawl. That combination proved devastating.
Barbados was first. The conditions progressively went downhill throughout the afternoon on October 10. By the time the eyewall arrived around 6pm, survivors said the wind was “so deafening that people could not hear their own voices.” Bark was stripped from trees, leading modern researchers to estimate that winds likely approached 200 mph, at least in gusts. The storm raged through the night and by dawn, the entire island had been leveled and 4,500 people were dead.
The appalling devastation continued as the hurricane crawled northwestward along the islands. The human carnage was almost unimaginable. On some islands, nearly everyone died. As many as 13,000 were killed on Martinique alone as the island was annihilated by a 25 foot storm surge. The town of Saint Pierre, famously wiped out by a volcanic eruption 122 years later, vanished. St. Vincent and St. Lucia also lay in ruins. Few homes remained standing on either island. The fleet of legendary British Admiral George Rodney was caught off the coast of St. Lucia. The fleet was devastated, losing at least 11 ships and likely more along with thousands of sailors. The admiral later reported seeing cannons thrown over 100 feet in the air by ferocity of the wind. The French fleet, by comparison, was remarkably lucky. Despite 40 ships being caught in the hurricane off Martinique, only one ship is known to have been lost.
The impact this had on the subsequent course of the American Revolution has been much debated. Most historians agree the British fleet had generally recovered by the time of the Americans’ climactic victory at Yorktown just under a year later. However, the fleet’s failure to breach the French blockade and relieve the hopelessly besieged British army ultimately led to General Cornwallis’ final surrender.
Continuing to rake along the islands of the Caribbean, the hurricane battered the southern coast of Puerto Rico at somewhat diminished intensity. It curved up through the Mona Passage and along the northern coast of Hispaniola before finally turning out to sea. It remained a powerful hurricane for days, however, running over 50 ships aground in Bermuda as it passed offshore. The scale of the hurricane is scarcely imaginable and it happened during a crucial moment in history.
“The sea — this truth must be confessed — has no generosity. No display of manly qualities — courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness — has ever been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power.”
West Indian Hurricane, August 1813 – The 1813 hurricane is remembered as the worst hurricane to strike the Lesser Antilles in the past 200 years. The storm’s intensity is unknown but it was very powerful. Martinique and Dominica were devastated and at least 3,000 people were killed.
Great American Hurricane, September 1821 – America’s first legendary hurricane, the 1821 hurricane ravaged the eastern seaboard from the Outer Banks to Cape Cod. The hurricane devastated the Outer Banks and the Delmarva Peninsula. The hurricane ravaged the New Jersey coast and storm tides as high as 29 feet were reported. The Jersey Shore was very sparsely populated in those days (Atlantic City wasn’t founded for another 32 years), however numerous homes were destroyed and an untold number of people died. The hurricane then made a direct hit on New York City, causing a 13 foot storm surge at Battery Park that flooded lower Manhattan all the way to Canal Street despite the fact that the hurricane hit at low tide. Over 200 people are believed to have lost their lives.
Santa Ana Hurricane, July 1825 – One of the worst hurricanes in Puerto Rico’s history, the Santa Ana storm caused catastrophic floods across the island that killed 1,300 people. It was an incredibly powerful storm, possibly a Category 5, with a pressure of 918 mb recorded on the island of Guadeloupe, which was also heavily damaged
Great Caribbean Hurricane, August 1831 – Also known as the Great Barbados Hurricane, the hurricane of 1831 was a classic Cape Verde hurricane that left a trail of destruction spanning from the Lesser Antilles to Louisiana. Bridgetown, Barbados was flattened by a 17 foot storm surge, killing 1,477 people there. Continuing into the Caribbean, the storm all but destroyed the Haitian town of Les Cayes. It travelled the length of Cuba, end to end, causing widespread destruction and devastating mudslides on the eastern part of the island. The hurricane then roared into Atchafalaya Bay, Louisiana as a Category 3, bringing a 7-10 foot storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain, flooding portions of New Orleans. In all, roughly 2,500 people are believed to have died in the hurricane.
Great Havana Hurricane, October 1846 – Believed to be the most powerful hurricane of the 19th Century, this storm was the strongest ever recorded in Atlantic history for over 88 years with a pressure of 902 mb. Havana was demolished, as were several nearby villages. 30 foot waves wrecked 85 ships in the harbor and at least 163 people were killed there. Some estimates put the true figure at close to 600. Key West was rocked by winds in excess of 140 mph and a 12 foot storm surge. Only six of the island’s 600 houses escaped damage and 50 people died. The lighthouses at Key West and Sand Key toppled into the ocean.
It passed over Tampa Bay as a powerful hurricane. As it approached, it sucked so much water out of the bay that the adjacent Manatee River was so low that one could cross it on horseback. 40 people were killed on the Florida mainland. The storm then raked up the East Coast, causing moderate damage in Savannah and the loss of a schooner in Charleston Harbor. The hurricane or its extratropical remnant caused widespread damage in the northeast. The Potomac River reached its highest level in two decades and a hundred yards of the Battery in New York City was washed away. In all, at least 255 people are believed to have died in the hurricane.
Last Island Hurricane, August 1856 – Last Island, Louisiana was a popular resort island for many years. Thousands of people vacationed there every summer to escape the oppressive southern heat. In August, 1856, it all disappeared. Beginning on August 9, tourists were captivated by large waves that began pounding the beach. One survivor, Rev. Robert McAllister, said, “Each breaker extended to the right and left as far as the eye, straining its vision, could reach… We did not know then as we did afterwards that the voice of those many waters was solemnly saying to us, ‘Escape for thy life.'” By the following day, the gravity of the situation became increasingly clear. Conditions deteriorated rapidly and that afternoon, the powerful Category 4 hurricane roared over the island. Many of the island’s roughly 400 visitors were hoping to escape on the ferry, the Star, that serviced it, but the Star was blown off course and beached behind the hotel on the lee side of the island. Quite a few survivors were able to reach the beached ferry and Captain Abe Smith rescued at least forty people by tying himself to the railing with a rope and fighting his way through a storm of sand to haul people aboard.
Soon however, the entire island was inundated. Dozens of people were huddled on the second floor of the two-story hotel as the water rapidly rose. Then, at the height of the storm, the entire structure collapsed. Very few of those taking shelter inside survived. The entire island was virtually wiped out of existence. The resort’s roughly 400 visitors were trapped as the island essentially sank into the sea. In fact, for weeks following the storm, the island’s battered ferry was the only sign that an island had ever existed there. Roughly half of those on the island perished in the storm. Some were swept into the bayous of the mainland, never to be heard from again. Survivors clung to trees, elevated cisterns, and anything that floated. Some were later pulled aboard the Star, but many were left adrift until rescue arrived three days later…undoubtedly too late for some. Help only came when three survivors were able to salvage a half-submerged boat and sail to the mainland. The story quickly became national news.
At sea, several ships were caught in the storm. The steamer Nautilus sank with the loss of 85 passengers and crew. The ship’s second steward, Jim Frisbee, was the only survivor. The ships Manila and Ellen were also lost and a combined 28 people were killed. Another twenty people died in various other shipwrecks at sea.
Lower Plaquemines Parish was severely flooded by the storm surge, though the extent of the damage is unclear. The town of Abbeville in Vermillion Parish was reportedly destroyed by a flash flood from the hurricane’s heavy rainfall. In all, roughly 400 people died in the hurricane. All that’s left of Last Island now are a few large sandbars that appear at low tide, gradually disappearing with each passing year.
San Narcisco Hurricane, October 1867 – The San Narcisco storm devastated Puerto Rico, then a Spanish colony, and the Virgin Islands as a Category 3 hurricane. Over 50 ships were lost around the Virgin Islands, drowning at least 600 sailors. The storm passed directly over San Juan and devastated Puerto Rico’s northern coast, killing 211 people. The Spanish government’s response to the hurricane is believed to have contributed to the growing unrest that led to the Grito de Lares, a brief rebellion against Spanish rule that took place a year later.
Saxby’s Gale, October 1869 – Saxby’s Gale was the first hurricane to be accurately forecast, by Royal navy sailing instructor and amateur astronomer Stephen Saxby. On Christmas Day, 1868, Saxby published a letter of warning in a London newspaper, The Standard, stating that on October 5, 1869, there would be an “atmospheric disturbance” in the North Atlantic coinciding with lunar perigee or pericyntheon. Lo and behold, Saxby’s “disturbance” struck New England as a Category 2 hurricane on October 5, just a month after a Category 3 hurricane struck almost the same spot. The lunar tide contributed greatly to the hurricane’s destructiveness. The storm caused widespread major damage across New England and along the shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, where most of the storm’s 100 fatalities are believed to have occurred. Saxby’s prediction, while dismissed at the time as pure coincidence, helped pave the way for modern forecasting.
San Marcos Hurricane, October 1870 – The 1870 hurricane caused incredible devastation in Cuba and the Florida Keys. It formed in the northern Caribbean and grew into a powerful Category 3 as it paralleled Cuba’s southern coast before moving ashore in Matanzas Province. The city of Matanzas was devastated by storm surge and flash flood. Floodwaters in the city reached as much as twenty feet deep. Wind gusts in the city reached as high as 125 mph, causing widespread damage to whatever the floodwaters spared. Flooding was widespread and devastating across west central Cuba and at least 800 people are believed to have been killed. Estimates run as high as 2,000. The lower Florida Keys, including Key West, were washed over by the storm surge. Numerous ships were lost in the Florida Straits with heavy loss of life and the death toll in the Keys could be as high as 1,200. If this figure is accurate, it would make it the worst maritime disaster ever caused by a hurricane.
Great Indianola Hurricane, September 1875 – In 1875, Indianola, Texas was a booming port town along the shore of Matagorda Bay. With its proximity to the Southern Pacific Railroad, it was seen as a gateway to the west. The hurricane of 1875 took that all away. It carved a long, devastating path through the Greater Antilles. It caused major damage in Barbados and brought extensive flooding to Haiti and Cuba. As much as 600 people are believed to have died in the Caribbean. The hurricane brought gale force winds to the Florida Keys, driving many ships aground. It strengthened as it bore down on the Texas coast, making landfall on Mustang Island south of Port Aransas.
The hurricane brought a devastating storm surge to a vast swath of the Texas coast. Matagorda Island was completely washed over. Old Velasco, a port at the mouth of the Brazos River, was completely destroyed. The town wasn’t fully rebuilt until 1888, when it was moved four miles upriver. It was absorbed by the modern town of Freeport in 1957. Indianola, however, suffered the worst. Two thirds of the town was swept away and 270 people were killed. Afterwards, town leaders considered rebuilding Indianola farther inland, however it was decided to rebuild it exactly where it was. The decision would come back to haunt them.
Savannah Hurricane, August 1881 – This hurricane demonstrated just how difficult it was to track storms over the open sea in the 19th Century. It was encountered by ships many times but the delay in relaying the reports to shore made them almost useless. This storm in fact ravaged the shipping lanes, causing many disastrous shipwrecks with heavy loss of life. It plowed into the north Georgia coast as a Category 2 and caused major damage to the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The city of Savannah was hardest hit. Most of the city’s buildings received damage. Parts of the city were flooded and 335 residents were killed. Another 101 were killed along the coastal islands. Over 100 ships were wrecked offshore. The number killed in these shipwrecks is unknown but estimated to be at least 250.
Second Indianola Hurricane, August 1886 – Just eleven years after Indianola was virtually demolished by a hurricane, it happened again. This one was much more powerful than the 1875 storm. A 15 foot storm surge inundated the town and Indianola was wiped out. Not a single home was habitable after the storm. Winds reached 72 mph at the Signal Office before the building collapsed, killing the observer. The railroad, the town’s lifeblood, was crippled. Two miles of track was torn out of the ground. The hurricane caused significant damage inland. Victoria was battered by high winds and heavy rain. A train moving through town was derailed. Numerous homes were effectively destroyed by wind and water damage. The hurricane was the end of Indianola. The town was rebuilt again but 15 miles further inland. Today all that remains of the town is a small fishing village. Much of the land on which the former town sat has disappeared into Matagorda Bay. 74 people were killed, 46 in Indianola, far fewer than the roughly 800 caused by the 1875 storm; thanks to proper warnings and a lower population. The total destruction of one town by two separate hurricanes is without such a precedent as Indianola. The hurricanes ruined the town’s ambitions to be the Gulf’s premier commercial port. That title passed to another Texas town: Galveston.
Straits of Florida Hurricane, September 1888 – The 1888 hurricane has been largely forgotten by history but it did incredible damage to the Greater Antilles and Mexico, especially in Cuba. First, it tore through the Turks and Caicos as a powerful Category 3. It left much of the island chain in ruins and killed 21 people. It then ravaged Cuba’s northern coast, where some small towns were entirely destroyed. The storm passed directly over Havana as a Category 2. Over 800 people died in Cuba during the storm. The hurricane then struck the Veracruz area of mainland Mexico. Considerable damage was done there and roughly 100 people lost their lives.
New York Hurricane, August 1893 – One of modern meteorologists’ greatest fears is a hurricane strike on New York City. It has happened before…and probably will happen again. In 1893, a strong Category 1 hurricane passed over the heart of Brooklyn with 85 mph sustained winds, causing widespread wind damage across Brooklyn and Queens. A sizable storm surge struck the barrier islands of Long Island. The Long Beach area was hit particularly hard. Hog Island, a resort island situated in the bay behind Long Beach Island, was completely wiped out and split in two. The eastern portion is now Barnum Island, home to Island Park, and the western portion gradually sank into the sea. It was abandoned in 1902 and all that remains are the Black Banks. Coney Island suffered extensive damage along its famous waterfront. 34 people died in shipwrecks at sea, 17 on the tugboat Panther alone. Central Park lost numerous trees, but New York City proper largely escaped major damage. However this hurricane serves as a reminder of what could possibly be the perfect storm.
Sea Islands Hurricane, August 1893 – The Sea Islands Hurricane was the deadliest hurricane to strike the US eastern seaboard north of Florida. Its terrible storm surge, which is estimated to have been about 16 feet, devastated the barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina and killed roughly 1,500 people. Some of the south’s wealthiest plantations were devastated. Though the days of slavery were long gone, these plantations were still worked predominantly by African-Americans. Just how many of them died may never be known. Dozens of them simply vanished into the marshes. The Sea Islands hurricane saw the emergence of the use of federal aid to assist in disaster recovery. This marks the first federally organized relief effort in the wake of a natural disaster in the United States. The American Red Cross, led by its legendary founder, Clara Barton, set up shelters, clothing-warehouses and kitchens in a 10-month relief campaign that was ultimately successful. The hurricane also became famous for the exploits of US Lifesaving Service Keeper Dunbar Davis, whose crew rescued the entire crews of four ships caught in the hurricane.
Cheniere Caminada Hurricane, October 1893 – The third deadliest hurricane in US history, the Cheniere Caminada storm was the second devastating storm to strike the country that season. It hit the Louisiana delta as a Category 4 with little warning. The villages of Cheniere Caminada and Grand Isle were completely destroyed by the 16-foot storm surge and 2,000 people died, over half of them in those two villages alone. Just one house remained standing in Cheniere Caminada. 779 of the town’s 1,500 residents died in the storm. The town was never rebuilt. It’s now part of the village of Grand Isle.
San Ciriaco Hurricane, August 1899 – The San Ciriaco storm was Puerto Rico’s greatest human disaster and the longest lived Atlantic storm of tropical origin (31 days) ever recorded. It brought 120 mph winds and great destruction to portions of the Leeward Islands, particularly Guadalupe, Montserrat, and St. Croix. It slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane and devastated the entire island. Wind gusts reportedly reached 140mph. Torrential rains triggered catastrophic flash floods. 23 inches reportedly fell on Humacao in as many hours. Rivers across the island burst their banks and inundated numerous villages. The entire city of Ponce was flooded and the city’s oceanfront was leveled. 500 people died in Ponce alone. The real carnage, however, was in the Puerto Rican countryside, where entire villages were swept away by floodwaters. In all, roughly 3,400 people were killed in Puerto Rico.
The hurricane, however, was just beginning. It raked through the Bahamas as a major hurricane and fifty boats were wrecked. 125 people are believed to have died, most of them at Red Bay on the north end of Andros Island. It then struck the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a Category 3. Large portions of the barrier islands were overwashed. Diamond City and the other communities of Shackleford Banks were hit particularly hard. Fourteen people died along the North Carolina coast and Shackleford Banks was abandoned. At sea, numerous ships were wrecked and over thirty sailors drowned. The hurricane would continue all the way to the Azores before losing definition.
“The sea stood up before him, foaming, torn by lightning bolts, opening terrifying mouths that gobbled up the dense, hard black rains unleashed by the sky like hate.”
Great Galveston Hurricane, September 1900 – The Galveston Hurricane was the single most catastrophic event in US history. Galveston, Texas at the turn of the century was a bustling city of 38,000 people at a time when just three US cities had more than a million residents. It was the fourth largest city in Texas and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It was the Gulf Coast’s principal commercial port and its economy was booming.
The Galveston Hurricane had been lurking in the Caribbean since the end of August and brought flooding rains to Cuba. The forecaster in Havana predicted the storm would strike somewhere along the North Texas coast within five days. That forecast never made it to Galveston. In the Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane exploded into a monster Category 4 with 145 mph sustained winds. Even as the hurricane was on their doorstep, there was little alarm in Galveston. Many of them knew the story of Indianola, but few believed it could happen to them.
Galveston sat on a tiny spit of land off the Texas coast just nine feet above sea level. There was nothing to stop the storm surge. Galveston was obliterated. 60% of the city was completely destroyed. Only 10% of structures were livable after the storm. The destruction was so great that in many places, it was impossible to tell where the streets were. In the hardest hit areas, all that could be seen for miles in any direction was a sea of timber and rubble. Many of the structures that survived the storm were saved because the incredible volume of wreckage formed a dam that stopped the surge.
A staggering 8,000 people died in the storm, almost twice as many as the second deadliest US storm and roughly 21% of Galveston’s pre-storm population. Bodies were still being found months after the storm. At the peak of the cleanup, corpses were being found at rates of hundreds per day. Huge funeral pyres were set up across Galveston and burned for weeks after the storm, filling much of the city with a sickening odor. The complete, catastrophic destruction of a major city is without such a precedent in the Western Hemisphere with the notable exception of the San Francisco earthquake just six years later. A chilling message telegraphed to then-Texas governor Joseph Sayers and President William McKinley speaks volumes: “I have been deputized by the mayor and Citizens’ Committee of Galveston to inform you that the city of Galveston is in ruins.”
Florida Keys Hurricane, October 1906 – The 1906 hurricane was one of the worst hurricanes to affect the Florida Keys in recorded history. First, it struck Nicaragua as a major hurricane. A 15 foot storm surge ravaged sparsely populated, rural coastline north of Bluefields. Floods are reported to have devastated rural mountain areas inland but to what extent is unknown. The storm’s effects in Nicaragua are described as “appalling.” Turning away from Central America, the storm re-intensified and tore through the Straits of Florida with 120 mph sustained winds. While Cuba escaped major damage, the Florida Keys were inundated by storm surge. Construction workers working on Overseas Railroad were caught completely by surprise. They were housed in small houseboats that were moored offshore. Scores of them were simply washed away or dashed to pieces by heavy seas. 174 people died in Florida alone, most of them railroad workers. The toll elsewhere is unknown but is estimated to be over 300.
March Hurricane of 1908 – The 1908 storm was the earliest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. It formed northeast of the Leeward Islands in early March and eventually attained wind speeds of over 100 mph. The next earliest hurricane formed in mid-May! Several boats were wrecked when it passed over the islands but damage to structures was minimal and no one was killed.
Great Mexican Hurricane, August 1909 – The first of two devastating storms of the 1909 season, the Great Mexican storm was the deadliest hurricane in Mexican history (though a 1959 storm from the Pacific side killed about as many). After striking the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 2 with apparently little effect, it hit the northeastern Gulf Coast of the country as a strong Category 3 storm. The small fishing villages along the coast likely suffered greatly, but the extent of the devastation there is unknown. At least two villages were reportedly destroyed. Further inland, the hurricane caused devastating flash floods across the state of Nuevo Leon. The storm dropped over 17 inches of rain in 40 hours. On August 27, a dam near Nuevo Leon’s capital of Monterrey burst, sending a cascade of water into the city and surrounding area, destroying hundreds of homes and killing hundreds of people. A school where 90 people were taking shelter was swept away by the floodwaters. There were no survivors. At least 2,500 people were killed with some estimates running as high as 5,000. 800 of these are believed to have died in just a four block section of Monterrey.
Grand Isle Hurricane, September 1909 – Sometimes, a direct strike isn’t needed to cause devastating damage. The Grand Isle hurricane actually struck well to the west of the tiny barrier island, coming ashore south of Morgan City, Louisiana, some 70 miles to the west. However, the island was hit with the storm’s deadly right-front quadrant and the large 15+ foot storm surge completely destroyed Grand Isle and numerous other small villages in the region, killing over 300 people. New Orleans, a city of 287,000 people in 1900, saw devastating floods that inundated much of the city with as much as ten feet of water. However, the hardest hit areas of the city were primarily non-residential, so the death toll was more limited. Even so, at least 30 people died in New Orleans. Storm surge also inundated parts of coastal Mississippi, killing 18. In all, at least 371 people were killed and low-lying areas of southeast Louisiana were devastated. The storm also struck the western tip of Cuba as a Category 2 hurricane, causing extensive flooding. The steamer Nicholas Castina was caught in the storm and sank near the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth). 29 people on board drowned, bringing the death toll to 400.
Second Galveston Hurricane, August 1915 – The 1900 storm has become legendary but few know that just fifteen years later, another devastating hurricane hit the area. After the 1900 storm, the city built a 17-foot high seawall to prevent the storm surge from overrunning the island. 1915 was its first real test. In a track eerily similar to 1900, the storm roared ashore as Category 4 hurricane. The southern half of the island was devastated, but the city itself escaped major damage. Parts of the city were flooded in up to knee deep water, but overall damage was relatively minimal. Only eleven people died in Galveston proper. Galveston was spared, but 111 people died elsewhere in North Texas and hundreds of homes were leveled. Of the homes outside the protection of the seawall, only 10% were left standing. Another 101 died in shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico, 96 on the American steamship Marowjine, which was lost with all hands in the Yucatan Channel. Two additional shipwrecks claimed the other five. In all, the hurricane killed at least 237 people and caused $50 million in damage, equivalent to $1 billion today.
New Orleans Hurricane, September 1915 – Hurricanes in New Orleans are not a new concept. The city has been devastated by four different hurricanes since 1900 and has seen numerous smaller storms that caused plenty of damage. The 1909 storm had killed over 30 people in the city and caused widespread flooding. In 1915, it happened again. The 1915 storm plowed into the Louisiana bayous just west of Grand Isle as a high end Category 3 on September 29 with 125 mph sustained winds. New Orleans saw extensive flooding, particularly in the Mid-City neighborhood, and the city suffered severe wind damage from gusts in excess of 130 mph. 21 people died in New Orleans. South of the city, Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes were devastated, particularly the former. Numerous small villages were wiped out and some were never rebuilt. The historic fishing village of St. Malo on the southern shore of Lake Borgne, reportedly settled in 1763 by Filipino deserters from Spanish ships, was completely destroyed and never rebuilt. At least 200 people died in Plaquemines Parish alone. Many bodies were never found, so the true death toll may never be known. Another 50 or so died elsewhere in Louisiana, mainly in St. Bernard Parish. Advanced warning, however, prevented a more significant disaster however. Laforche Parish, for example, was heavily damaged but no fatalities were reported. Overall, damage was comparable to the 1909 storm.
Atlantic Gulf Hurricane, September 1919 – The 1919 hurricane wrought one of the worst maritime catastrophes ever seen in the Western Hemisphere and devastated the Corpus Christi area of Texas. Over 600 people died in ten shipwrecks during the storm’s passage through the Gulf of Mexico. The Ward Line steamer Corydon ran aground in the Bahamas and 27 passengers and crew drowned. That was just the beginning. Two schooners were lost with all hands near Cat Island in the Bahamas. The oil tanker Larimer, with a crew of 36, went missing in the Florida Straits while on a voyage from Port Arthur, Texas to Philadelphia. The cargo ship Lake Conway, with a crew of 32, also disappeared in the Florida Straits en route to Havana. Yet another ship, the cargo boat Munisla, with a crew of 32, also vanished south of Key West on its way to Havana. None of these ships were ever heard from again and no survivors were ever found.
All of these, however, paled in comparison to the horrible tragedy of the Valbanera. The Valbanera was a small, Spanish ocean liner operated by the Pinillos Line. It left the Canary Islands near the beginning of September bound for Havana with 1,142 passengers and 88 crew on board. Most of the passengers were ticketed for Havana but 749 chose to disembark when the ship stopped at Santiago de Cuba. It was a choice that probably saved their lives. The ship reached Havana at the height of the hurricane but the harbor was closed and they were forced to ride out the storm. The ship and the 488 people still on board were never heard from again. The wreck was found off Rebecca Shoal, its mast sticking out of the water. No bodies were ever recovered. In all, at least 615 people died at sea during the hurricane. It remains the highest maritime death toll from a hurricane since at least 1870.
The hurricane rocked Key West, passing just offshore as a Category 4, generating winds estimated in excess of 110 mph with gusts believed to be as high as 150 mph. After wreaking havoc in the Florida Straits, the storm moved west across the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall about 20 miles south of Corpus Christi near the entrance to Baffin Bay as a Category 3 hurricane. Several towns along Corpus Christi Bay were devastated. 286 people died in Texas. In all, the hurricane killed at least 900 people, making it the worst hurricane of the 1910’s.
Great Miami Hurricane, September 1926 – South Florida was booming in the 1920’s. The country was getting richer and many were seduced by Florida’s warm sunshine and miles of undeveloped coastline. The Florida Land Boom was the prelude to the rapid buildup of coastal cities in recent decades. It would’ve come sooner had nature not intervened. Miami, despite being synonymous with hurricanes, has actually been quite lucky. Only three hurricanes have seriously affected the city center. One of them, however, was among the most terrible hurricanes ever to strike the United States. The hurricane of ’26 ripped through Biscayne Bay as a monster Category 4, sending the worst of the storm surge right into the heart of the city. Coral Gables was in ruins. Downtown Miami looked like a war zone. Several feet of water filled the streets. However, what took the storm from great to legend was its eye. The large eye passed right over Miami and all was suddenly calm. Hundreds of survivors soon filled the streets, believing the storm was over. Then the back side of the storm hit. It was slaughter. Roughly 250 people died in the city and many were never found. As the cities, and the dreams, of south Florida lay in ruins, few remember that the storm killed another 123 people along the northern Gulf coast. The Alabama coast and the Panhandle were devastated as the storm raked the area as a major hurricane. For Florida, 1926 was the beginning of over two decades of misery at the hands of hurricanes. The state’s economy wouldn’t fully recover until the late 1960’s.
La Habana Hurricane, October 1926 – About a month after Miami was nearly leveled by a hurricane, Cuba was ravaged by its worst hurricane disaster in 55 years (though recent evidence suggests that a storm in 1910 caused comparable carnage). It struck south of Havana as a Category 3 with little warning. Horrible floods tore through the western half of the island. 650 people died in the floods. But the storm wasn’t finished. After rattling the upper Florida Keys, the storm intensified and set its sights on Bermuda. It passed directly over the island as a Category 4. Apart from unusually heavy surf, there was little sign the storm was coming. Two British warships were wrecked in the harbor and 88 sailors were swept out to sea and drowned.
Okeechobee Hurricane, September 1928 – South Florida was still reeling from the 1926 hurricane. Miami was a shell of its former self. Then a storm even worse hit. A powerful Cape Verde hurricane, this one first struck the island of Guadeloupe as a Category 4. The island was devastated. The town of St. Francois was leveled. 1,200 are now believed to have died on the island, easily its worst hurricane disaster of the 20th Century. The islands of Montserrat and Antigua were also devastated. After passing Guadeloupe, the hurricane strengthened even further, slamming into Puerto Rico as a Category 5. The devastation was absolute. Coastal towns vanished and floods ravaged the mountainous interior, sweeping away entire villages. 312 people died on the island, a somewhat remarkable number given the Biblical destruction. Advance warning was superb for the period and undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives.
Unlike two years earlier, the 1928 storm filled the headlines in Florida days before landfall. Stories of the devastation the storm wrought in the Caribbean and fresh memories of 1926 struck fear into Floridians. Hundreds fled the coast to inland areas of Florida…many of them to homes of relatives along the shores of Lake Okeechobee. The storm struck the Stuart area at almost the exact same intensity as the ’26 storm and caused great destruction, but relatively few casualties there. Few of the refugees realized that they would’ve been safer back in their homes.
Because Lake Okeechobee is below sea level, it needed to be held back by a dike. The dike was old, crude and woefully inadequate to cope with the large volume of inflow driven by the hurricane. At the height of the storm, huge chunks of the dike failed, unleashing a flood of biblical proportions that inundated hundreds of square miles of South Florida. Numerous small towns along the lakeshore where thousands were taking shelter were wiped out of existence. In some places, the water was over 20 feet deep and took weeks to recede. Over 2,500 people were washed away. Scores of them simply disappeared when the torrent carried them into the Everglades.
Forgotten in the wake of the carnage in south Florida was the trail of devastation left in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe suffered a direct hit from the strengthening Category 3 hurricane with little warning. The island was obliterated with up to 1,200 of its residents killed. Montserrat, despite advanced warning, suffered severe damage and 42 people died on the island. A few other islands also suffered extensive damage. The storm struck Puerto Rico as a Category 5 with 160 mph sustained winds. 36 hours advanced warning spared the island a repeat of the 1899 storm. Property damage, however, was catastrophic. Sustained winds were measured as high as 150 mph before the storm even reached its peak. Sustained hurricane-force winds raked the island for 18 consecutive hours. As much as 30 inches of rain fell on the island during that time. The Bahamas also suffered significant damage but prior warning prevented serious loss of life. The Okeechobee storm was the second deadliest natural disaster in US history. The much larger and stronger Herbert Hoover Dike now holds back Lake Okeechobee.
Santo Domingo Hurricane, September 1930 – The Dominican Republic has seen its share of devastating hurricanes, many of which grace this list. The 1930 hurricane was the worst. It slammed into the nation’s capital of Santo Domingo as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on September 3. A wind gust at the airport was measured at 180 mph. Much of the city was left in ruins. Over 2,000 people died in Santo Domingo alone. The extent of the flood disaster in the mountains beyond the city is unclear, but what is known is that it was epic. Many villages were entirely washed away. In some, nearly the entire population drowned. Historians estimate that up to 6,000 people were killed in flash floods and mudslides in the mountains overlooking the ruins of Santo Domingo.
National Day Hurricane, September 1931 – September 10, 1931 was a national holiday in Belize (then a colony of Britain), commemorating the defeat of the Spanish at the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798. It was much like the Fourth of July in the US. Hundreds were out celebrating and enjoying the festive atmosphere. The weather was beautiful; no disturbance of consequence had been detected in the Caribbean. But, unbeknownst to the citizens of Belize, what was a relatively weak hurricane had exploded into a powerful Category 4 with 135 mph sustained winds. The storm slammed into Belize City, inundating the city with a massive storm surge. Belize City, then the colony’s capital, was almost completely destroyed. The storm struck with little warning and the loss of life was appalling. About 1,500 died in Belize City alone. Another 1,000 are believed to have died in the surrounding area and in shipwrecks at sea.
Great Cuban Hurricane, November 1932 – Like most of the Caribbean islands, hurricanes are a fact of life in Cuba. The island has a long history of destructive hurricanes and takes them very seriously. They’ve seen all too often just how terrible these storms can be. The hurricane of November 9, 1932 was the worst of them all. It was a massive, Category 5 hurricane with 160mph winds. On the night of November 8, the Cayman Islands were devastated by what may have been the highest storm surge in Atlantic history. The massive, 33 foot surge flattened Cayman Brac. Little of the island remained standing after the storm and 69 people died there. The storm slammed into Cuba’s Camaguey province at around noon the following day. The coastal town of Santa Cruz del Sur was obliterated. Nary a wall remained standing. Even more staggering was the human toll. Of the town’s roughly 4,000 inhabitants, 2,870 died in the storm. That’s a mortality rate of nearly 72%. Most of the 1,100 who survived were the ones able to evacuate in time. Another 163 died elsewhere in Cuba.
Central America Hurricane, June 1934 – Up to this point, Central America had avoided the terrible human catastrophes for which it would later become known. But populations in those rural nations were rapidly expanding and the vulnerability of the region would soon become all too clear. The 1934 storm wasn’t very strong, just a Category 1, but the erratic track it took over Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras dropped an enormous amount of rain on the rural, mountain villages and caused devastating floods, especially in Honduras. Some areas saw over two feet of rain in 72 hours. Many small villages were entirely washed away. In Ocotepeque, Honduras, only the church remained standing. 500 people died in that village alone. At least 1,000 people died in Honduras and hundreds more were never found. Historians estimate the true death toll to be close to 3,000.
Labor Day Hurricane, September 1935 – The legendary Labor Day Hurricane was the most powerful hurricane ever to strike the United States (in terms of sea level pressure) and possibly the strongest ever to strike a landmass. It appeared essentially out of nowhere, forming in the Bahamas and exploding into a Category 5 off Andros Island just hours before landfall. At 9:20 pm on Monday September 2, 1935, the upper Florida Keys fell into Hell. An 18 foot storm surge and winds in excess of 150 mph laid waste to Islamorada and the surrounding islands. Nearly every structure along a 30 mile stretch of coastline was demolished. The winds were so powerful that a thick, 18 foot long support beam weighing over 100 pounds was hurled over 300 yards into a house, all but destroying it. At the time, the eyewall was still three hours away. The lonely, 135 ft high Alligator Reef Lighthouse sits on a rock miles from any structures. Its lenses and 3/8 in. thick protective glass were blown out by the storm. An 11 car relief train sent down to Islamorada to evacuate residents was thrown off the tracks like a toy by the storm surge. 423 people died in the storm. The 892 mbar pressure measured on Upper Matecumbe Key, the lowest ever recorded on land, makes it the only hurricane in the past 150 years to strike land with a pressure lower than 900 mbar. Its Atlantic record stood for 53 years.
1935 Caribbean Hurricane – Forgotten in the wake of the epic Labor Day Hurricane, Storm #5 of mid-October, 1935 became just another hurricane. Few today would believe that this innocuous-looking Category 1 killed over 2,000 people in a country it never got within 100 miles of. The storm was probably similar to 1994’s Hurricane Gordon in that it likely had a large, complex circulation that spread large amounts of rainfall over a wide area. As the storm made a u-turn between Jamaica and Cuba, flooding from torrential rains inundated the southwestern peninsula of Haiti, killing an estimated 2,000 people. Off Jamaica, a schooner capsized and sank with the loss of all hands. The storm then struck Central America, where more flooding killed another 150 in Honduras.
Great New England Hurricane, September 1938 – Long Island in the 1920’s and ‘30s was the Beverly Hills of the east, a place made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Hamptons were and remain the playground of the rich and famous. On its shores were the richest, most extravagant homes in the country. Its wealth and status had survived the five years of the Great Depression. On September 21, 1938, it took the sea less than three hours to take it all away. The Long Island Express, as it became known, was once a powerful Category 5. New Englanders knew it was out there, but they were told it would go out to sea. Instead, it screamed due north at one of the fastest forward speeds ever documented for a tropical cyclone, ~70 mph.
When it reached the central Long Island coast, the storm was a monster Category 3 hurricane with 115 mph sustained winds. Gale force winds spanned 500 miles and hurricane force winds reached as far east as Rhode Island and as far west as Brooklyn. A record gust of 186 mph was measured at Blue Hill Observatory near Milton, Massachusetts during the storm. A storm surge of at least 18 feet obliterated the Hamptons. Entire neighborhoods of the country’s richest homes were washed away. 50 people died on the eastern end of Long Island alone. The powerful storm surge created Shinnecock Inlet, severing West Hampton Dunes from the mainland. Rhode Island fared little better. Entire beachfront communities were wiped out of existence. Downtown Providence was under 13 feet of water. Despite being sheltered by Long Island, the Connecticut coast was severely damaged by high winds and tides and pounding surf. Areas east of New Haven were leveled. It remains the state’s worst disaster. Western Massachusetts was ravaged by flooding that inundated towns along the Connecticut River. 99 people died in the state. The storm was gone in a few hours, but in that time, it was able to kill 682 people, lay waste to the most affluent region of the country and change New England forever.
Great Atlantic Hurricane, September 1944 – The Atlantic storm of 1944 ravaged the US eastern seaboard as a powerful hurricane. It wrought destruction from the Outer Banks to New England and caused terrible shipwrecks that took hundreds of lives. The Outer Banks saw the worst of the storm. Many homes were destroyed, including nearly the entire town of Kinnakeet. It went on to cause significant damage to the New Jersey shore and Long Island. In all, 46 people would be killed on land. However, the catastrophe at sea would overshadow the events on shore. Off Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks, the Coast Guard cutters Jackson and Bedloe sank with the loss of 48 crewmen. The survivors clung to liferafts for 51 hours before being rescued.
Navy minesweeper YMS-409 capsized and sank in heavy seas off Cape Hatteras, taking her entire crew of 33 with her. The lightship Vineyard Sound and her crew of 12, moored at the entrance to Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, disappeared at the height of the storm. The battered wreck was found by Navy divers a week later. Worst of all, however, was the tragedy of the destroyer USS Warrington. Sailing from Norfolk, the Warrington unknowingly steamed straight into a Category 4 hurricane. The ship began taking on water and soon lost power, leaving her helpless. The crew was forced to abandon ship at the height of the storm. Just 73 of the 321 on board survived.
Pinar del Rio Hurricane, October 1944 – An unusually destructive, late season hurricane severely impacted western Cuba and southwest Florida, killing more than 300 people. The storm moved slowly through the western Caribbean before accelerating into western Cuba as a Category 3. Winds at Havana gusted as high as 163 mph. Rural areas just west of Havana saw the worst damage. Storm surge and river flooding tore through several small villages, devastating the area. Around 300 people were swept away. The port of Havana was trashed. Many of the surrounding structures were destroyed and the harbor was so clogged with sunken boats that it had to be closed. In Florida, the Sarasota area was hardest hit. Many neighborhoods in the area were severely damaged. Also, nearly two-thirds of the season’s citrus crop was destroyed. 18 people were killed in the state, half of them in a shipwreck at the entrance to Tampa Bay.
Fort Lauderdale Hurricane, September 1947 – Although it never gained the notoriety of the Florida hurricanes of the 1920s and 30s, the 1947 hurricane was one of the most powerful ever to strike the United States. Only three have struck the US with stronger winds. The storm was truly a monster. It roared over the Bahamas as a Category 5, where 160 mph gusts were measured. When it reached the Florida coast, hurricane-force winds raked a 240 mile swath of coastline; from Coral Gables to Cape Canaveral. Winds in excess of 100 mph were felt from Jupiter to Miami’s northern suburbs, a distance of 70 miles. Hillsboro Inlet Light reported 155 mph gusts and 122 mph sustained winds.
The coastlines of south Florida were nowhere near as built up as they are today. Despite this, damage was heavy. The Fort Lauderdale-Lake Worth area got the worst of the storm. Large stretches of Florida A1A were washed into the sea. Inland Florida saw torrential rains that triggered widespread flooding. On the west coast, Naples saw gusts to 120 mph. 17 people died in Florida. After crossing the Florida peninsula, the storm moved northwest across the Gulf of Mexico and struck southeastern Louisiana as a Category 1. Despite being much weaker, the storm caused severe damage to Louisiana and Mississippi. Bay St. Louis was inundated by a 15 foot storm surge, destroying many beachfront homes. 22 people were killed along the Mississippi coast. Parts of New Orleans were flooded when the Industrial Canal Levee broke. Jefferson Parish also saw extensive flooding. 12 were killed in Louisiana. In addition to the 51 deaths, the storm also caused $110 million in damage, equivalent to $1 billion in 2009.