While some places in the United States are less at-risk than others, every state is prone to some type of natural disaster. Whether it's hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, forest fires, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes or heat waves, each state in the union has dealt with a devastating natural phenomenona in the last century or so. These storms and catastrophes loom large in the memories of people who lived through them. But which weather event had the biggest impact? Between loss of life, property damage and historical impact, here are the worst disasters to hit each state.
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The weather conditions of April 25-28, 2011, created a "super outbreak" of 362 confirmed tornadoes, one of the largest and deadliest outbreaks in U.S. history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the tornadoes caused $11 billion in damages and killed an estimated 321 people. Three of the tornadoes in the outbreak were EF-5 twisters, meaning they had winds higher than 200 mph. The outbreak hit Alabama the hardest with 69 tornadoes in three days, including one that hit Tuscaloosa with 190 mph winds, causing 65 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries.
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On the Friday before Easter Sunday 1964, Alaska saw the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake shook the whole state and reverberated through the rest of the country, even causing Seattle's Space Needle 1,200 miles away to wobble, according to the U.S. Geological Society. The ground shifted vertically due to the quake by as much as 50 feet in places, according to Wired, and the coastline of Alaska was changed forever. It also produced a 130-acre landslide that destroyed 75 houses as well as a 220-foot-high tsunami. In total, it caused over 120 fatalities and more than $2 billion in property losses.
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Thanks to its inland location and climate, Arizona isn't known for suffering from many natural disasters. However, it is prone to flash floods, and the state's deadliest storm led to the deaths of 23 people on Labor Day 1970. The state received more than 11 inches of rain in 24 hours in some areas from Tropical Storm Norma. The flooding was most severe in the Mogollon Rim area, where campers weren't warned in time to avoid the incoming rushing waters, which swept away cars, cabins and trailers. The storm caused an estimated $5.8 million in damage, according to the NOAA.
While Arkansas's economy has shifted away from its farming roots, the agricultural industry still plays a big role in Arkansas. That's why it was one of the states hardest hit by the major drought and heat wave of 1988, considered the worst since the Great Depression. An NOAA report found that the year's cotton, soybean, corn and wheat crops were decimated. In total, it caused thousands of direct and indirect deaths and more than $40 billion in damages.
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California is the most disaster-prone state, according to FEMA data. And unlike many other U.S. states, California is prone to massive earthquakes. California experienced the costliest earthquake in U.S. history with the 1994 Northridge quake, which did more than $20 billion in damage. The Golden State was also hit with the deadliest earthquake in U.S. history, which rocked San Francisco way back in 1906. The magnitude 7.9 quake and the subsequent fires it caused destroyed 28,000 buildings and resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.
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While Colorado has faced hail storms, blizzards and wildfires, one of its most impactful natural disasters was the Denver flood of 1965. In June, a stationary storm dumped heavy rain and hail into Plum Creek, which turned into a 20-foot wall of water by the time it reached Denver's South Platte River. The water swept away almost all of Denver's east-west bridges, damaged or destroyed 2,500 homes and killed 21 people, according to the NOAA. The flood caused more than $500 million in damage, the equivalent of more than $4 billion when adjusted for inflation.
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The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 wreaked havoc on most of the region, but it has competition when it comes to the worst natural disaster the state had seen since colonial times, according to NBC Connecticut. The Nutmeg State saw record rainfall in August of 1955 from two hurricanes a week apart. The resulting flooding swept away people, cars, neighborhoods and entire downtowns, affecting 20,000 families and causing more than $350 million in damage in Connecticut.
Delaware has dealt with its fair share of hurricanes and winter storms, but the most destructive storm in Delaware's history took place around Ash Wednesday in 1962. For three days, a nor'easter as intense as a hurricane pounded the mid-Atlantic coast with winds up to 60 mph. The storm caused record flooding, dumped large quantities of snow inland and even ripped a 500-foot tanker ship in two in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm caused millions of dollars in damage in Delaware.
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In 2018, Florida's coast was bombarded by Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that directly caused more than 40 deaths and about $25 billion in damage, according to the NOAA. Michael was the first storm of its size to strike the Florida Panhandle since record-keeping began in 1851. Its 155-mile-per-hour winds, heavy rains and up to 14-foot storm surges caused flooding and destruction. Nearly $200 million alone was spent on cleanup and recovery at Tyndall Air Force Base, one of the nation's largest Air Force bases.
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Georgia is the least disaster-prone state in the South, according to the Washington Post, but the state has still suffered from natural disasters. In September 2009, heavy rainfall caused the worst flooding the area had seen in 500 years, according to the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency. More than 20 counties, including those in and around Atlanta, were declared federal disaster sites as waters swept away 20,000 homes, businesses and other buildings. Many of the rollercoasters at Six Flags Georgia were underwater. The flood caused 10 deaths and $500 million in damage.
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Hawaii is the U.S. state at greatest risk for a tsunami. In 1946, the largest earthquake ever recorded, a 9.5 magnitude quake in Chile, caused a 35-foot tsunami that slammed into the Hawaiian Island 15 hours later. Hilo Bay on the island of Hawaii was hit the worst, with more than 500 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed and 61 people killed by the tsunami out of 159 total. The tsunami did more than $26 million in damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The state of Idaho experienced an insect infestation of biblical proportions in 1985. Swarms of locusts darkened the skies and devoured millions of acres of crops across the Northwest, but Idaho was hit particularly hard. Some areas in the state reported as many as 1,800 of the insects on every square yard on the hardest-hit farms, according to the Chicago Tribune. A field only needs nine grasshoppers per square yard to be considered infested. The United States Department of Agriculture declared a state of emergency, contributing $15 million more to the $10 million already spent on control efforts in Idaho. The grasshopper epidemic ended up causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
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Illinois has seen its fair share of natural disasters, from the Great Chicago Fire to the deadly Chicago Heat Wave of 1995. But the Tri-State tornado, the longest, deadliest twister in United States history, rampaged across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana for 3.5 hours in 1925, obliterating entire towns in its wake. Its almost mile-wide path tore straight for 219 miles with a 62 mph average speed, flattening 15,000 houses, injuring more than 2,000 people and killing almost 700. Southern Illinois was the hardest hit, with towns like Murphysboro suffering 234 deaths, a record for a single community from such a disaster, according to the NWS.
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Tornadoes have caused significant damage in Indiana over the years, but in spring 2012, the state faced a massive tornado outbreak of 75 different twisters across the Midwest. Indiana was most affected as the town of Henryville was slammed with an EF-4 tornado with 175 mph winds that lifted people, cars and homes and flung debris 70 miles to the northeast in Kentucky and Ohio. The outbreak altogether did $3.5 billion in total damage and claimed 42 lives, according to the NOAA.
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Armistice Day, a holiday celebrating the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, took on a different meaning for Iowans after 1940. That year, the state was slammed by a sudden blizzard on Nov. 11. The early temperatures on the holiday were mild, and hundreds of people were out and about enjoying the day, according to the National Weather Service. However, temperatures swiftly dropped and heavy rain turned to heavy snow that reduced the visibility to zero. People found themselves buried under snowdrifts 20 feet high that shut down roads and stranded trains. The storm killed more than 150 people as well as thousands of livestock and hundreds of apple trees, single-handedly killing the state's apple industry and causing more than $2 million in damage.
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Kansas is one of the most tornado-prone states on top of being culturally associated with twisters thanks to "The Wizard of Oz." The deadliest tornado in Kansas history struck the town of Udall in 1955. The town of 500 people was leveled by the F5 tornado with 300 mph winds, which claimed the lives of 80, according to the National Weather Service. Only one home was left habitable in town and vehicles and the town water tower were left almost unrecognizable.
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The bluegrass fields of Kentucky were frozen white during the winter of 2009 when an ice storm hit that then-Gov. Steve Beshear called the state's largest-ever natural disaster. A state record of 700,000 customers lost power in subzero temperatures. The state opened 172 emergency shelters and 4,600 National Guardsmen were deployed to check on people door-to-door. There were 55 fatalities.
With the improvement of storm-tracking technology, weather prediction and our country's warning and evacuation system, many modern storms have wreaked less havoc than deadly disasters a century ago. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the exception to this trend. Katrina is one of the costliest and deadliest hurricanes to ever strike the United States, causing more than $100 billion in damage and 1,833 fatalities, according to the NOAA. The devastation to New Orleans was particularly severe. After the levees separating New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain broke, at least 80% of the city was underwater.
The ice storm of 1998 killed 16 people and caused an adjusted $2.2 billion in damages. It also knocked out power for 80% of Maine’s residents, according to the NOAA. The entire state was declared a disaster area as it was coated in ice as much as 3 inches thick that snapped power lines, downed trees and shut down roadways. According to News Center Maine, power was out for some for as long as 23 days after the first outages were reported.
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Although Hurricane Isabel was downgraded to a tropical storm, it still did extensive damage to Maryland in 2003. The storm brought little rain, but the winds as high as 83 mph, flooding and storm surges destroyed 300 buildings and 20 acres of beach on Baltimore's coast. Downtown Annapolis was mostly underwater due to flooding and the U.S. Naval Academy suffered $116 million in damages to its campus. Altogether, Isabel caused $5.5 billion dollars in damage to areas along the east coast of the United States, and killed 51 people, according to a National Weather Service report.
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Massachusetts was one of the hardest-hit states by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Storm surges up to 12 feet and winds of 121 mph with gusts up to 183 mph — the strongest hurricane wind gust ever recorded in the United States — battered the coast, per the Sun Chronicle. The hurricane caused 600 total deaths — 99 in Massachusetts — and $308 million in damage, according to the NOAA.
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In September 1986, Central Lower Michigan was slammed by a stationary storm that dumped torrential rain on 30 different counties for three days and caused more than $500 million in damages — the equivalent of more than $1 billion in today's dollars, according to MLive. About a dozen dams failed, multiple bridges collapsed and at least six people died. The flooding also destroyed crops during harvest season to the tune of $300 million in losses.
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The Camp Fire wildfires of 2018, which killed over 80 people, were the deadliest in the United States in 100 years. A century prior, sparks from train engines started a fire that destroyed 30 Minnesota communities, killed hundreds of thousands of farm animals and claimed the lives of more than 450 people. What became known as the Cloquet Fire caused $73 million in property damage, the equivalent of more than $1 billion today, according to the National Weather Service.
While 1969's Hurricane Camille caused 172 deaths on the Mississippi coast and more than $1 billion in damage, this storm wasn't as deadly as the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which claimed the lives of more than 250 people and is the most destructive river flood in U.S. history. After water levels caused almost the entire levee system along the river to collapse, more than 23,000 square miles of farmland were submerged, displacing hundreds of thousands of people for months. The storm changed the course of American history. In the aftermath of the disaster, the discriminatory treatment of African-Americans, who received less aid and were forced to work in recovery efforts, contributed to the Great Migration from the South to cities in the North. According to National Geographic, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover's handling of the emergency earned him his party's presidential nomination.
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The tornado that touched down in Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011 is the costliest tornado in American history, causing an estimated $2.8 billion in damages, according to the NOAA. Winds reached up to 200 mph and over 150 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado since modern record-keeping began in 1950, according to the NWS.
The biggest wildfire in U.S. history started in Montana. In April 1910, a small fire started in the Blackfeet National Forest in northwest Montana. The fires continued to burn over the course of the extremely dry summer and were considered under control until they blossomed into an inferno in August after unexpected hurricane-force winds swept through the region. This became known as "the Big Blowup" with flames hundreds of feet high. The fires killed 87 people and destroyed 3 million acres of land across Montana and Idaho and an estimated 7.5 billion board feet of timber, according to the Forest History Society.
Nebraska may be prone to disasters, but its infamous winter storms have done some serious damage and become touchstones of state history. The tragic Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888 caused the death of more than 200 people, most of them children. But the Blizzard of January 1949 did more widespread damage, paralyzing Nebraska and the rest of the northern Plains region for months, according to the National Weather Service. On top of killing 20 people in Nebraska, the storm caused the death of more than 150,000 cattle and sheep and formed insurmountable snowdrifts that stranded households and towns. President Harry Truman declared a federal disaster, and relief efforts saved 240,000 trapped people and cleared 115,000 miles of roads, per the Omaha World-Herald.
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Nevada is known for its desert climate, and the heat there can turn from unpleasant to deadly. During a heat wave in July of 2005, temperatures in southern Nevada reached 117 degrees, making the asphalt so hot it could cause second-degree burns. According to the Las Vegas Sun, 17 people died between July 14-23, making for what's perhaps the deadliest stretch of hot weather in the Las Vegas Valley.
While New Hampshire was also impacted by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the snowstorms that fuel the state's winter sports tourism can turn deadly, as was the case with the nor'easter of April 2007. The state received $30.5 million in federal disaster aid, according to NHPR, making it one of New Hampshire's costliest weather events in the past few decades. The storm was devastating enough for the IRS to grant affected states' residents extensions on filing their taxes.
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Although Sandy was downgraded from a hurricane to a post-tropical cyclone, it still caused hurricane-level chaos and destruction. The superstorm was responsible for more than 150 deaths and $73.5 billion in damage all along the east coast, according to the NOAA. The storm made landfall in New Jersey, where it killed 12 people and left an estimated 3 million Garden State residents without power. It battered 72,000 homes and businesses, tore homes in half and dragged Seaside’s “Jet Star” rollercoaster out into the Atlantic Ocean after Casino Pier collapsed.
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According to a Moneywise analysis of FEMA data, "more than half the time a disaster is declared in New Mexico, it's because of a forest or brush fire." The Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex of 2012 raged across the largest range, but the Cerro Grande Fire of May 2000 is seared into the memories of residents. What started as a controlled burn in Bandelier National Monument was stoked by high winds into a blaze that threatened the town Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The flames ultimately burned over 400 homes and 47,650 acres and cost $570 million in disaster expenses, according to FEMA.
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Hurricane Sandy caused massive destruction all along the east coast with wind, storms surges, rain and heavy snow. But New York had the most casualties of any state with 48. Sandy caused the New York Stock Exchange to close for two consecutive days for the first time in more than 100 years and closed the Statue of Liberty for 247 days due to flood damage.
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In September 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. It went on to become one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes to ever hit the Tar Heel state. Florence caused record flooding, more than 50 deaths and $24.5 billion in damage, according to the NOAA.
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Around 70,000 residents were forced to evacuate Grand Forks and other cities along the Minnesota-North Dakota border when the Red River swelled far higher than expected in the spring of 1997, affecting an area roughly the size of the state of Delaware, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The disaster caused more than $4 billion in damages — $3.6 billion in the Grand Forks area alone — and more than 20,000 volunteers came to the community to help clean up and rebuild. Since 1997, more than $1 billion has been spent on flood control projects along the Red River, including a massive levee system, according to Minnesota Public Radio.
The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 was one of the worst floods of the 20th century and is still considered Ohio’s worst natural disaster. High levels of rain caused levees to fail, sending a wall of 4 trillion gallons of water rushing toward the city of Dayton. Floodwaters as deep as 20 feet destroyed 14,000 homes and killed more than 350 people. The rest of the state and region were also impacted. Property damage was more than $2 billion in today's money, according to History.com.
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Oklahoma is located smack dab in Tornado Alley, meaning it's literally where "the wind comes sweeping down the plain" as its state song suggests. In 2013, a deadly E5 tornado with 200 mph winds ripped through the city of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people, including nine children, and causing an estimated $2 billion in property damage.
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Oregon's Columbus Day Storm of 1962, one of the worst weather disasters in state history, was nicknamed "the Big Blow." Winds of more than 100 mph, on par with a Category 3 hurricane, knocked down power lines and trees and shattered glass, leaving 53,000 homes across Oregon and Washington significantly damaged, according to the Oregonian. The storm caused 46 deaths, mostly in Oregon, and did $235 million in estimated property damage — $1.9 billion in 2015 dollars, according to KUOW.
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Though it happened over a century ago, the Johnstown Flood of 1889 remains one of the deadliest disasters not only Pennsylvania but also the U.S. has ever seen. The South Fork dam holding back the water in Lake Conemaugh collapsed, sending 3.8 billion gallons of water rushing toward the Appalachian town of Johnstown. The water formed a 40-foot wave moving at 40 mph that ripped houses from their foundations, hurled 170,000-ton locomotives and killed 2,209 people, including 99 entire families. The flood did $17 million dollars in damage, more than $450 million in 2019 dollars, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
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New England's "hurricane of the century" is still one of the worst disasters to ever hit the state of Rhode Island. Coastal beaches and cities were bombarded with up to 50-foot tidal waves, which dragged people and entire buildings out to sea. The storm did an estimated $100 million in damage in Rhode Island alone. Over 200 Rhode Islanders died, about half the death count across the entire Northeast.
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Record-shattering rains hit South Carolina in October 2015 in what the Weather Channel described as "one of the most prolific rainfall events in the modern history of the United States." The days-long storm dumped more rain on South Carolina than any tropical cyclone in state history, more than a foot in some locations. The resulting "thousand-year" flooding killed 19 people and caused nearly $1.5 billion in damage, according to the NOAA.
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The Black Hills Flood of 1972, also known as the Rapid City Flood, was one of the deadliest floods in U.S. history. Severe thunderstorms dumped heavy rainfall over the Black Hills area of South Dakota, causing flash flooding that created a crest of water charging toward Rapid City at a rate of 50,000 cubic feet per second, according to the National Weather Service. The flood claimed 238 lives, injured 3,000, destroyed 1,335 homes and did $160 million in damage.
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One of the worst non-hurricane disasters in U.S. history was the Nashville flood of 2010 because of the economic and cultural impact it had on the city. Severe weather and record rainfall tore across the Southeast, but flooding in the Nashville area alone caused more than $1 billion in damage, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, affecting American landmarks like the Grand Ole Opry. The water killed 26 people in Tennessee and Kentucky, including 11 in Nashville, and displaced 10,000 people from their homes, according to the Tennessean.
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Even after the headline-making destruction of modern storms like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. A Category 4 hurricane with winds of more than 135 mph ripped through the coastal Texas town, destroying more than 3,600 buildings and killing between 6,000 and 12,000 people, according to the NOAA. Galveston was hit with another major hurricane with Harvey in 2017, though people were more adequately warned and evacuated beforehand.
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The most costly landslide in U.S. history, according to Utah Humanities, took place in 1983 when the Utah mining town of Thistle was swallowed whole. A landslide consumed Highway 6 and portions of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, becoming a "wall of mud twisted tracks and warped roads," according to the Salt Lake Tribune. It created a 220-foot-high dam when it blocked up the nearby river and creeks, and the displaced water turned Thistle into an 80-foot-deep lake. The first presidentially declared disaster in Utah, the landslide caused $200 million in damage, according to the Daily Herald.
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The landlocked state of Vermont seems like it would be protected from tropical storms and hurricanes, but the Green Mountain State was battered by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Entire towns were cut off from the outside world after extreme flooding consumed all their bridges and roadways. The waters even washed away the state's emergency operations center. Six Vermonters died in the storm, and 12 different towns each faced millions of dollars in damage, according to the Burlington Free Press. Statewide repairs totaled $318 million, per the Washington Times.
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In the summer of 1969, Virginia was hit with the Mid-Atlantic’s deadliest hurricane disaster of the 20th century. Category 5 storm Hurricane Camille battered the Gulf Coast before traveling inland and unleashing concentrated, record-breaking rainfall over Virginia. The deluge caused flash flooding and landslides that swept away roads, bridges, trees and homes. The storm killed more than 113 people and did more than $116 million in damages in Virginia, according to Virginia Humanities.
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While the nation's capital has endured plenty of nor'easters, one of the most devastating and most famous is the Knickerbocker Storm of 1922. A record-breaking 28 inches of snow was dumped on D.C. from Jan. 27-28. The storm was named after the capital's largest movie theater, the Knickerbocker, the roof of which collapsed under the weight of all the wet snow during a silent film screening. The cave-in killed 98 people and injured 130, making it one of the deadliest disasters in Washington's history.
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The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state was the most destructive volcanic eruption in U.S. history. It caused widespread damage and killed 57 people in the blast. The eruption shot 900,000 tons of volcanic ash 80,000 feet in the air, making the afternoon of May 18 look like nighttime in eastern Washington. It scorched 230 square miles of forest, destroyed 200 homes and 185 miles of highway and killed thousands of animals. According to the International Trade Commission, the cost of damage and cleanup following the disaster was an estimated $1.1 billion.
The "most destructive flood in West Virginia history," according to a government report, was the Buffalo Creek flood of 1972. A trio of coal waste dams burst, releasing 130 million gallons of water and sludge that rushed through 16 mining communities, claiming 125 lives. Another 1,100 were injured and 4,000 were left homeless. The state sued the coal company that owned the dams but settled for just $1 million, leaving West Virginia to pay the remaining $13 million cost of cleanup.
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One of the most infamous fires in American history is the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But the worst wildfire in American history actually took place at the exact same time about 250 miles away in Wisconsin. The Peshtigo Fire burned 2 billion trees across 1.25 million acres and killed at least 1,200 people. The flames reached 200 feet in height and temperatures reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing trees to literally explode in flames. The fire consumed the village of Sugar Bush as well as the entire town of Peshtigo.
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A third of Yellowstone National Park went up in flames during the summer of 1988, which saw one of the worst droughts of the century. More than 25,000 firefighters were brought in to fight the flames, which consumed more than 2 million acres of the famous park. More than $120 million was spent to suppress the fires, and 30-plus years later, the burn scars the fire left on the park can still be seen in NASA images.