As a failsafe conversation topic, the weather never disappoints. Mention bad weather -- especially a disaster -- and the talk can go on for days.
The folks on the island of Manteo on North Carolina's Outer Banks, for example, dread the arrival of journalists because they usually bring alarming news with them. Often, reporters come to the small vacation spot before severe hurricanes. No matter the outcome, however, the island's residents end up paying the price. If the hurricane hits, they know they'll suffer losses in terms of property damage and income; at most, it will cost lives. They follow the storms closely, praying the meteorologist's predictions will be all talk.
If it seems like we're obsessed with weather, it's because there is a lot to talk about. We face trouble from hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, extreme temperatures and other potentially disastrous phenomena.
While people have discussed the weather forever, it is only in the last century or so that the cost of these events has been measured in terms of loss of life and property damage. Keep reading to learn about 10 of these costly weather disasters.
10. The Great Storm of 1900
Before hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons had names, they were remembered by location or the year. So, the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas at the turn of the century became known as the "Great Storm of 1900." At the time, the island of Galveston was a thriving seaport with a natural deepwater channel for shipping. Its location on the Gulf of Mexico also made it an ideal vacation destination.
On September 8, 1900, however, everything changed for the coastal town. The island's 37,000 residents knew they were in for a bad storm, but weather forecasting wasn't what it is today. Early that morning, the town's chief meteorologist watched flood waters rise and later watched with dread as the barometer dropped and the winds picked up. He warned people to evacuate and move to higher ground, but the island was essentially at sea level. There was nowhere to go as the sea rose around them.
As day turned to night, the town became powerless in every sense of the word. Families sat in the dark waiting for the storm to pass, and many were washed away with their homes. The storm passed after midnight. When dawn broke, it was apparent that everyone had suffered a loss, of either property or a loved one.
It is estimated that winds reached 140 miles per hour (225 kilometers per hour) and the storm surge reached almost 16 feet (5 meters). The hurricane destroyed more than 3,600 buildings, resulting in property damage that would estimate more than $700 million today. The loss of life was quite high as well: Between 6,000 and 8,000 people perished due to the storm [source: The 1900 Storm].
9. The 1930s Dust Bowl
Take poor farming practices such as overuse that leads to erosion, add several years of drought, toss in extreme weather conditions including tornadoes, blizzards, floods and excessive heat and cold, and you have a recipe for a weather disaster.
The time was the 1930s and initially things were looking good in the Midwestern United States. Wheat crops had taken off in the late 1920s; by 1930, just about every farmer was planting the grain on every available acre. However, soon supply exceeded demand, causing farmers to go broke and abandon their fields. Meanwhile, year after year, the Great Plains were hit by one extreme weather condition after another, from drought and record-breaking rain to blizzards and tornadoes.
If that weren't enough, Mother Nature spent much of the decade battering the region with dirt storms. When the annual spring winds began to blow, they kicked up the dirt from the abandoned wheat fields and over-plowed grasslands. It was so bad that dirt from Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas actually blew as far north as New York City. The area became known as the Dust Bowl and the desolation on the Plains became an iconic image of the Great Depression. One can't really measure the total cost of the drought; Congress spent $525 million on relief expenditures alone -- in 1934. Total costs may have neared the billion-dollar mark [source: National Drought Mitigation Center].
Man's overuse of the land compounded these apocalyptic Dust Bowl weather conditions. While the region continues to be exposed to the elements, locals hope that improved farming techniques and soil conservation methods will prevent the country from seeing another Dust Bowl [source: Bonnifield].
8. The 1931 Floods, Central China
If bad things happen in threes, the 1931 Floods in Central China were a result of that phenomenon. During that summer, three weather conditions caused the banks of China's three main rivers -- the Yangtze, the Huai and the Yellow River to overflow -- flooding thousands of miles and killing millions of people.
Major floods in the Yellow River, so called because of its heavy yellow silt content, aren't uncommon, due to the buildup of silt along the 3,000-mile (4,828-kilometer) river that originates in the mountains. The winter of 1931 saw an unusual amount of snow in the mountains; when it melted, waters traveled downriver along with heavy mud that led dikes to break and banks to overflow. The flooding in the low-lying area, known as "China's Cradle of Civilization," lasted from July to November [source: Cultural-China].
Meanwhile, the area along the Yangtze River received excessive amounts of rain during the summer of 1931, including 2 feet (61 centimeters) in one month alone. To add insult to injury, the cyclone season brought seven storms in July alone and 10 for the season -- five times the normal average. Together, the Yangtze and nearby Huai River turned China's then-capital, Nanjing City, into an island surrounded by more than 38,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers) of water.
Before the swollen rivers receded, between 3.7 and 4 million people either drowned, were swept away by flood waters, or died from diseases such as cholera and typhus.
7. Palm Sunday 1965 Tornado Outbreak
Palm Sunday 1965 was a day of biblical proportions. On that single day, 47 tornadoes struck six states in 12 hours. When it was over, 271 people lay dead, 3,500 were injured and property damage was estimated at more than $1.6 billion by today's standards.
The historic storm came rather unexpectedly. After a particularly harsh Midwest winter, people began to look forward to the Easter season and the warm weather that accompanied it. The weekend began with sunny skies driving people outside and away from television and the radio -- where news reports announced possible tornadoes.
Conditions began to change late Sunday morning and weather bureaus saw rapidly dropping temperatures and air pressure. These, combined with gusty winds across the region, spawned the first tornadoes, which touched down in Iowa just after noon. It wasn't long before reports of the twisters were coming not only from Iowa, but also from Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
While the entire event was unlike anyone had ever seen, one of the more unusual tornado outbreaks occurred in Michigan. An intense duo of tornadoes moved from one town to another on the same path -- one a few minutes behind the other. People and property hit by the first tornado barely had time to recover before being slammed again. The two storms traveled together for 90 miles (145 kilometers), destroying everything in their path.
Throughout the day, tornadoes continued to materialize and dissipate across the lower Great Lakes region. That day, it became clear that local weather bureaus needed to coordinate efforts to spot and predict storms, and implement a more effective warning system to save lives [source: Reaugh].
6. The Floods of 1966 -- Florence, Italy
When floods or fire causes property damage, costs can be calculated and often things can be replaced. But, what is the cost when the property is irreplaceable?
It's not unusual to see for the canals of Venice flood and fill the piazzas with water, but it was an extraordinary sight to behold when the piazzas of Florence and surrounding villages were submerged under water in early November 1966. For two solid days, torrential rain battered the Tuscan region of Italy, causing rivers to swell and overflow. When the Arno -- the river that flows through Florence and beneath the famous Ponte Vecchio footbridge -- broke its banks, water gushed through the narrow streets and into the city's historic buildings filled with priceless art.
It was November 4 and the country was celebrating a national holiday. As a result, many people were out of town, which may have prevented loss of life, but at the same time, public buildings were closed, preventing people from rescuing the treasures inside.
At its peak, the water reached 16 feet (5 meters), killed several people and left many more homeless. When the flood waters receded, some 500,000 tons (453,592 metric tons) of mud were left caked onto the city, both inside and out of landmark buildings including Brunelleschi's Duomo, the Biblioteca Nazionale, the Ufuzzi Gallery and Santa Croce. Once the reality of the situation set in, artists from across the country and around the world descended on the city in an effort to save the hundreds of thousands of pieces of damaged art and millions of soaked books [source: Borsheim].
Although these "Mud Angels" recovered and restored numerous valuable pieces of art, many treasures were lost and many more are still waiting to be cleaned today.
5. Tornado of 1989, Bangladesh
Tornadoes aren't unique to the United States. In fact, Bangladesh seems equally prone to twisters. To make matters worse, the densely populated South Asian country is extremely poor. Housing in rural villages is often primitive, which can put lives at risk. Additionally, when tornadoes strike the small nation, authorities are more focused on rescue efforts than documenting the storm itself. Finally, when assessing the cost of tornadoes, in terms of loss of life and property damage, obtaining accurate data is also a challenge. Many families are forced to quickly bury their dead and fatalities often go unrecorded.
Despite the sketchy record keeping, authorities believe that the world's deadliest tornado took place in Bangladesh on April 26, 1989. The tornado, which measured one mile (1.6 kilometers) wide, completely obliterated several towns as it traveled through five districts. When it was over, the storm had cost more than 1,300 people their lives. Additionally, some 12,000 were injured and 80,000 people across the small country were left homeless [source: The Tornado Project].
4. The Storm of the Century, North America, 1993
Many storms claim to be "the storm of the century," but the blizzard that hit the east coast of the United States and battered a stretch of North America from Alabama to Canada in March 1993 truly earned the distinction. At the first hint of spring in the air, a nor'easter -- a type of storm famous for picking up moisture and dumping it -- blew up the coast. In addition to heavy snowfall, the storm packed powerful winds and frigid temperatures.
The storm began in Florida with torrential rains, winds, storm surges and tornadoes. From there, it traveled north and rain changed to snow. Areas that almost never experience snowfall accumulation were blanketed in feet of the white stuff. The eastern third of the country was literally and figuratively frozen. Two days later, when the snow stopped falling, the temperatures did not: More than 140 record low temperatures were documented during the storm, as well as numerous record high snowfall accumulations.
The impact of the storm was felt in 26 states, where it affected the lives of 100 million people -- nearly half the population of the United States at the time. The blizzard took the lives of 270 people on land and 48 at sea. It also caused property damage in excess of $3 billion. Other less obvious costs came in the form of lost revenue: For example, 25 percent of the nation's airline flights were canceled during the weekend storm, and other businesses were at a standstill due to loss of electrical power [source: WW2010].
3. Hurricane Mitch, 1996
In addition to being named, Atlantic hurricanes also are measured in terms of intensity based on wind speed and damage caused. The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, developed in 1971, ranks each storm on a scale from one to five.
When Hurricane Mitch struck Central America -- specifically Honduras and Nicaragua -- in late October 1998, the Category 5 storm was the most deadly since the Great Hurricane of 1780, which battered the Caribbean. Like most hurricanes, Mitch began as a tropical depression. However, unlike many storms, he rapidly grew into a monster. Mitch rose to Category 5 status within four days, with sustained winds of 180 miles (290 kilometers) per hour and gusts more than 200 miles (322 kilometers). Remarkably, the winds remained at that speed for 33 hours and wave heights grew as high as 44 feet (13.4 meters).
As the storm moved westward, winds decreased slightly. However, Mitch had picked up moisture from both the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean, and so dumped up to 2 feet (61 centimeters) of rain on some regions in just one day. On land, Mitch triggered floods and mudslides, wiping out entire villages and their inhabitants. Not content to stop there, Mitch -- which had been downgraded to a depression by this time -- flexed his muscles again, struck Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as a tropical storm, and then for a third and final time hit the Florida Keys.
When all was said and done, Mitch took 11,000 lives. An additional 18,000 people were reported missing, and damage estimates in the impoverished countries exceeded $5 billion [source: NOAA].
2. The European Heat Wave of Summer 2003
Summer in Europe: It sounds ideal doesn't it? Not if it was the summer of 2003, when Mother Nature hit the continent with a blistering heat wave. With France as the bull's eye, the intense temperatures not only scorched crops, desiccated rivers, melted glaciers and fueled fires, it look lives. The death toll from the two-week period exceeded 52,000 people.
Generally, Northern and Central Europe experience warm and comfortable summer weather. Shutters and shades keep dwellings cool; air conditioning isn't a necessity. However, during the summer of 2003, Europe saw its hottest temperatures in 500 years.
After an unusually warm summer, the August heat wave, which lasted 20 days, killed 14,800 people in France alone, overwhelming hospitals and morgues. The people hardest hit were the elderly, sick, and those without ways to cool themselves. Regrettably, the Ministry of Health didn't acknowledge the magnitude of the problem until it was too late [source: Larsen].
Reports on deaths due to heat aren't as immediate as they'd be from other weather-related disasters, and may be surprising to learn. Death tolls in other countries impacted by the silent killer include the following:
- Italy -- 18,257
- Germany -- 7,000
- Spain -- 4,130
- England and Wales -- 2,139
- Portugal -- 2,099
- Netherlands -- 1,800
- Belgium -- 1,250
- Switzerland -- 975
- [source: Larsen]
It's hard to believe, but the death toll from the 2003 European Heat Wave eclipsed that of Hurricane Katrina, which occurred two years later.
1. Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Gulf Coast, 2005
During her short but eventful lifetime, Hurricane Katrina reached Category 5 levels. By the time she made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States on Aug. 29, 2005, she'd been downgraded to Category 4. But what made her one of the costliest weather disasters in history was the impact she had -- particularly in New Orleans -- after she moved on.
While human loss of life was great -- 1,836 people perished -- the damage from the storm and its aftermath is estimated to be $60 billion in insured losses (including flood damage). All told, the storm cost the Gulf States an estimated $125 billion [source: NOAA].
The excessive cost of the storm can't be blamed entirely on Katrina's magnitude. However, the surge that followed in her wake was too much for the New Orleans' levees to restrain. The surge reached 22 feet (7 meters) and flooded 80 percent of the city. In Mississippi, the surge reached levels of 27 feet (8 meters) and traveled 12 miles (19 kilometers) inland. The storm and the aftermath stranded thousands and left many more homeless as it destroyed 275,000 homes.
State, local and national leaders, as well as government agencies, also paid the price for their slow response to Hurricane Katrina and her impact on the Gulf Coast [source: Dwyer]. The disturbing images of the aftermath of the storm are almost more horrific than images of the storm itself. The victims of the Gulf felt abandoned by their government and people across the world felt helpless to lend a hand.
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More Great Links
- Bonnifield, Paul. "1930's Dust Bowl: The Dust Bowl, Men, Dirt and Depression." Cimarron County Chamber of Commerce. (Accessed Sept. 20, 2010) http://www.ccccok.org/museum/dustbowl.html.
- Borsheim, Kelly. "Florence Mud Angels." Borsheim Art Newsletter. November 4, 2006. (Sept. 22, 2010) http://www.borsheimarts.com/news/2006_11.htm.
- "Death Tolls and Damages Caused in the 1931 China Floods." Cultural-China.com. 2007-2010. (Sept. 21, 2010) http://history.cultural-china.com/en/34H7420H12518.html.
- Dwyer, Devin. "Hurricane Katrina: Political Leaders Weather Legacy of Storm's Trials." ABC News. Aug. 30, 2010. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/hurricane-katrina-political-leaders-weather-legacy-storms-trials/story?id=11511009
- Hile, Kevin. "Handy Weather Answer Book." Invisible Ink Press. 2009.
- Larsen, Janet. "Setting the Record Straight: More than 52,000 Europeans Died from Heat in Summer 2003. July 28, 2006. Earth Policy Institute. (Sept. 22, 2010). http://www.earth-policy.org/index.php?/plan_b_updates/2006/update56.
- Lutz, Heidi. "One night of terror became lasting part of Galveston's identity." The 1900 Storm. 2010. (Sept. 20, 2010). http://www.1900storm.com/storm/index.lasso.
- National Drought Mitigation Center. "Drought in the Dust Bowl Years." (Nov. 3, 2010). http://www.drought.unl.edu/whatis/dustbowl.htm
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Hurricane Katrina -- Most Destructive Hurricane Ever to Strike the U.S." February 12, 2007. (Sept. 20, 2010). http://www.katrina.noaa.gov/.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Satellite and Information Service. "Mitch: The Deadliest Atlantic Hurricane since 1780." January 23, 2009. (Sept. 22, 2010). http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/mitch/mitch.html.
- Reaugh, Tom. "The Palm Sunday Story, April 11, 1965." National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office. February 1, 2010. (Sept. 21, 2010). http://www.crh.noaa.gov/iwx/program_areas/events/historical/palmsunday1965/index.php.
- Reed, Jebediah. "Mysterious red cells might be aliens." CNN.com. June 2, 2006. (Sept. 25, 2010). http://articles.cnn.com/2006-06-02/tech/red.rain_1_blood-cells-theory-samples?_s=PM:TECH.
- "Superstorm 1993: a case study." WW2010 University of Illinois. September 13, 1997. (Sept. 22, 2010). http://ww2010.atmos.uiuc.edu/(Gh)/arch/cases/930312/home.rxml.
- "Worldwide Tornadoes -- Bangladesh." The Tornado Project. 2000. (Sept. 25, 2010). http://www.tornadoproject.com/alltorns/bangladesh.htm.
- "Year Without Summer." Discovery Channel. 2010. (Sept. 24, 2010).http://www.yourdiscovery.com/earth/year_without_summer/pre_eruption/index.shtml.