Most fatal U.S. weather conditions of the past 120 years

Written by:
March 18, 2019

Most fatal U.S. weather conditions of the past 120 years

A series of natural weather disasters hit the U.S. in 2016, killing hundreds of people and causing millions of dollars' worth of damage. In February of that year, more than 100 tornadoes ravaged the nation. Hail storms in Texas followed the twisters, and Hurricane Matthew struck Florida in September, leaving many people without power.

2016 is a case study in violent weather patterns—one that's often repeated before and since. In the last two decades alone, deadly storms like Hurricane Katrina and wildfires in California have caught national attention.

As natural disasters grow more common and deadly, we must look to the past to prepare for future events. But which extreme weather conditions have caused the most deaths in the nation's history?

Using data compiled by Statista from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Stacker analyzed the 19 most fatal weather conditions in U.S. history since 1900. The list is ranked in ascending order by the number of fatalities for each type of weather.

What is the deadliest type of weather? And how often do common weather patterns, such as thunderstorms, result in death? Read on to find out.

You might also like: How each state uses its land

#19. Drought

- Number of fatalities: 0
- Number of disaster occurrences: 14

A drought is a period of little-to-no precipitation, resulting in the drying of rivers, streams, and other water beds. The dry period can affect the growth of crops and other plants. Although land and water temperatures are the most common cause, drought can also occur from overpopulation and overuse of resources.

While there have been 14 droughts in the U.S. since 1900, there have been no fatalities.

#18. Severe winter conditions

- Number of fatalities: 19
- Number of disaster occurrences: 2

Severe winter storms, such as the December 2018 snowstorm in North Carolina, endanger people stuck outdoors or in vehicles. For those unable to seek shelter, the risk of freezing temperatures and icy conditions can turn deadly in an instant. One January 2019 snowstorm affected an 1,800-mile area of the U.S., dropping a foot of snow in some places.

#17. Land fire (brush, bush, pasture)

- Number of fatalities: 27
- Number of disaster occurrences: 16

A land fire can include fires in pastures or brush fires. A fire ravaged the Texas Panhandle in May 2017, killing four people who were trying to save livestock.

#15. Tsunami (tie)

- Number of fatalities: 61
- Number of disaster occurrences: 2

A tsunami, also known as a tidal wave, is caused by volcanic eruptions or earthquakes on the seafloor, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The event triggers a wave that crashes into coastal areas, causing widespread damage.

Alaska and Hawaii are the areas most susceptible to tsunamis in the United States.

#15. Extra-tropical storm (tie)

- Number of fatalities: 61
- Number of disaster occurrences: 2

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an extra-tropical storm is a cyclone made up of a mixture of warm and cold air. This differs from a tropical cyclone, which typically has no major difference in air temperature.

In 2018, Hurricane Leslie became an extra-tropical storm before hitting the United States.

#14. Coastal flood

- Number of fatalities: 72
- Number of disaster occurrences: 1

Coastal flooding happens when high tides or storms push water levels higher than low-lying areas along the coast. Changes in the Earth's climate increase the risk of coastal flooding, and more than 8 million Americans live in risky areas, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation.

#13. Ash fall

- Number of fatalities: 90
- Number of disaster occurrences: 1

Even a small amount of the ash shot into the air by a volcanic eruption can irritate the skin and lungs. The blast zones of such eruptions span miles, too, as the ash is often carried by wind currents, according to GNS Science. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen's in Washington pushed ash high enough to travel to the central United States.

None of the United States' volcanic eruptions have been among the deadliest, according to Oregon State University.

#12. Parasitic disease

- Number of fatalities: 100
- Number of disaster occurrences: 1

Parasitic diseases can thrive after natural disasters due to tainted water supplies. Additionally, the bodies of dead animals can quickly spread infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the United States, the risk of disease after a natural disaster is typically overemphasized, according to the United Nations University.

#11. Flash flood

- Number of fatalities: 206
- Number of disaster occurrences: 16

A flash flood is a quick increase in water levels after a major rainstorm, typically within a few hours, according to the National Weather Service. In 2015, flooding in Utah killed at least 16 people. South-central Texas and the Ohio River valley are considered two of the riskiest places for flash flooding in the United States.

#10. Viral disease

- Number of fatalities: 217
- Number of disaster occurrences: 3

Similar to parasitic diseases, viral diseases can thrive after a natural disaster because the mechanisms typically in place to stop them are destroyed. For example, West Nile virus was common following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 after a breakdown in pest control led to an increase in mosquitoes.

#9. Cold wave

- Number of fatalities: 381
- Number of disaster occurrences: 10

An extreme cold wave, sometimes called a “polar vortex,” is a front of cold air from the North Pole that moves south, according to the Guardian. In 2019, a week of extreme cold in the central United States was linked to at least 21 deaths.

#8. Riverine flood

- Number of fatalities: 650
- Number of disaster occurrences: 102

A riverine flood occurs when unusually high rainfall causes a river to overflow its banks, affecting neighboring communities. In 2018, flooding in some rivers related to Hurricane Florence killed more than 30 people in North Carolina, according to NPR.

#7. Landslide

- Number of fatalities: 658
- Number of disaster occurrences: 5

Landslides occur when a strong movement of dirt and rocks break away from a hillside and moves down a slope. A 2014 landslide in Oso, Wash., that killed at least 20 people is believed to be the deadliest in U.S. history, excluding those involved with other natural disasters.

#6. Forest fire

- Number of fatalities: 1,249
- Number of disaster occurrences: 53

Wildfires have become more frequent in the United States with warming temperatures and dryer summers. According to National Geographic, most wildfires are started by humans. The 2018 Camp Fire in California was the deadliest in recent decades, killing nearly 50 people.

#5. Ground movement (earthquake)

- Number of fatalities: 2,826
- Number of disaster occurrences: 39

An earthquake is caused when the Earth's tectonic plates shift or slip, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The deadliest earthquake alone in U.S. history occurred in 1964 in Alaska, killing at least 140 people.

#4. Heat wave

- Number of fatalities: 4,801
- Number of disaster occurrences: 24

Heat waves occur when there is above-average warm weather for several days in a row. This type of weather is growing increasingly common due to rising global temperatures. In 1980, a 15-day heat wave in the central United States killed at least 1,700 people.

#3. Convective storm (thunderstorm)

- Number of fatalities: 8,185
- Number of disaster occurrences: 310

A convective storm, more commonly known as a thunderstorm, can bring heavy rainfall, tornadoes, and lightning, according to the University of Illinois. The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 was the deadliest in U.S. history, killing 695 people in the central United States.

#2. General flood

- Number of fatalities: 8,458
- Number of disaster occurrences: 246

Unlike flash floods, general floods are predicted in advance, but they can still cause damage to infrastructure putting people at greater risk, according to the International Federation of Red Cross. Flooding related to hurricanes—such as the one in Galveston, Texas—typically cause the most deaths, though it is difficult to distinguish between flooding and hurricane deaths in those cases.

#1. Tropical cyclone

- Number of fatalities: 16,134
- Number of disaster occurrences: 106

A tropical cyclone is a convection storm formed over warm, tropical waters. The Lake Okeechobee Hurricane and Hurricane Katrina are considered to be the deadliest tropical cyclones in U.S. history, each killing thousands of people, according to Weather Underground.

Trending Now