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World's deadliest hurricanes, typhoons & cyclones

September 12, 2018

Tropical storms are seasonal weather events. But they never fail to shock us with the destruction they wreak. DW ranks some of the worst and fiercest ever.

Satellite image of Hurricane Florence as it churns through the Atlantic Ocean toward the US East Coast
Image: Getty Images/NOAA

There's a reason some parts of the world get hit by hurricanes more than others — it's built into the weather system. Places in the US like Galveston, Texas, or New Orleans in Louisiana have seen their fair share of tropical storms. The same is true for other parts of the American eastern seaboard and beyond — from Florida down to the Bahamas, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.

In the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the usual targets are Bangladesh, the Philippines, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Japan and India. And we'll get to some of the worst storms in a moment.

First, though, a word about our terms and weather conditions: We often talk about hurricanes and typhoons as though they were the same thing. And technically, they are the same.

Read more: Japan slowly cleans up Typhoon Jebi damage

Meteorologists use the term tropical cyclone to describe any rotating system of clouds and thunderstorms that originates over tropical or subtropical waters and which has a closed, low-level circulation.

Hurricane Florence infographic

But only those that form over the Atlantic or eastern Pacific Ocean are hurricanes. The rest are typhoons.

… Like clockwork 

Tropical cyclones are most common during the northern hemisphere's late summer and autumn, so around September and October. 

When the water temperature in the North Atlantic goes over 26-27 degrees Celsius (about 78-80 degrees Fahrenheit), warm, wet air rises, leaving an area of low pressure behind.

That low pressure attracts high pressure air from its surroundings. The new air gets sucked into the mix. And this monster starts to grow: It rises, cools, creates clouds, and begins to swirl because of the Earth's rotation. The young tropical cyclone sucks in more and more hot air, feeding off that energy, making it mightier still.

A man and a woman push a supermarket trolley filled with food items
People in North Carolina, USA, "prepping" ahead of the arrival of Hurricane FlorenceImage: picture-alliance/pa/ZUMAPRESS

In the center, it's a windless zone. That's the eye of the storm.  

All that combined can create a rolling beast, hundreds of kilometers in diameter, packing winds of up to 300 kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour), and dumping end-of-the-world like rain storms when it makes landfall.

We know that, and yet we are always struck by the destruction and death these storms cause.

Before records began

Geologists say they can tell that tropical cyclones have been doing their thing for thousands of years. For instance, they think that layers of sediment at the bottom of a lake in Alabama, in the US, were brought there from the nearby Gulf of Mexico by storm surges associated with intense hurricanes about 3,000 years ago.

We've since learned to keep meticulous weather records. It allows us to understand these weather events better, but we still can't control them. With satellite data, we really can "see them from miles off," and that means we can predict and prepare — theoretically, at least, because they still manage to catch and kill us.

Read more: Major US tourist sites prepare for Hurricane Florence

One of the worst in our more recent history hit India 300 years ago.

Three-pronged hurricane assault infographic

Hugli River Cyclone

Also known as the Hooghly River or Calcutta Cyclone, it's been described as "one of the deadliest natural disasters of all time."

It made landfall on October 11, 1737, in the Ganges River Delta, causing a storm surge of 10-13 meters (30-40 feet). There are reports of 381 millimeters (15 inches) of rain in a 6-hour period. The storm tracked approximately 330 km inland before dissipating.

Between 300,000 and 350,000 people died.

The Great Hurricane

In the history books the Hugli River Hurricane is often followed by the Great Hurricane of 1780 in Barbados. Records are a bit sketchy, however. It's thought to have formed near the Cape Verde Islands around October 9, before tracking westward. It passed Martinique and St. Lucia, then Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

A "menacing line of hurricanes" in the Atlantic basin in September 2017
A gang of hurricanes. These three hurricanes were tracked brewing in the Atlantic basin in September 2017Image: NASA/Adam Voiland

Barbados reported 4,500 deaths, St. Lucia cited 6,000 dead and about 9,000 in Martinique. The total number of dead is somewhere between 22,000 and 27,000. 

Haiphong Typhoon

Pacific typhoons regularly track over the Gulf of Tonkin and that's exactly what this one did in October 1881. It originated near the Philippines, and wreaked its devastation in Haiphong, Vietnam, and along the local coastline.

It created an almighty storm surge that killed 300,000 people. And that's just the direct death toll. It's thought many more died as a result of ensuing disease and starvation.

Galveston Hurricane

In 1900, a Category 4 Hurricane hit Galveston, Texas. It wouldn't have been the first and it certainly was not the last time. The small town in the Gulf of Mexico also got whipped by Hurricane Alicia in 1983 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.

The devastation caused by a hurricane in Galveston, Texas, USA, in September 1900.
The devastation caused by a hurricane in Galveston, Texas, USA, in September 1900. It would not be the last time.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/efe/Noaa

But the one in 1900 is noted as one of the worst. It left between 8,000 and 12,000 people dead. The population back then was just under 38,000.

A Category 4 storm is not even the worst, so that death toll is staggering.

According to the Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, the categories are ranked like this:

Category 1 – winds speeds of 119-153 kilometers per hour (74-95 miles per hour)       

Category 2 – winds speeds of 154-177 kmh (96-110 mph)

Category 3 (classed as major) – winds speeds of 178-208 kmh (111-129 mph)

Category 4 (major) – wind speeds of 209-251 kmh (130-165 mph)

Category 5 (major) – wind speeds of 252 kmh or higher (157 mph or higher)

The Great Bhola Cyclone

As with Galveston, Bangladesh has been struck more than once. In November 1970, it was the trails of a tropical storm that in a sense re-intensified it.

Aerial view of the coastal area of Patuakhali littered with dead cattle after it was hit by the tropical cyclone and tidal wave
A coastal area littered with dead cattle after the 1970 Bhola Cyclone. Hundreds of thousands of people were dead or missingImage: Getty Images

Satellite images held by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show a "well-defined cyclone" with winds of 137-145 kmh on November 11. A day later, its wind speed was over 220 kmh. Meteorologists could see it coming, but it's said there was no way of communicating the danger to those in the cyclone's path. As a result, at least 300,000 people died. Some estimates put the death toll at 500,000.

In 1991, Bangladesh was hit by another major storm. That time, about 138,000 died.

Super Typhoon Nina

It wasn't dubbed "super" for nothing. Super Typhoon Nina was short-lived but intense — and early in the season. At its peak of 185 kmh, Nina passed Taiwan to make landfall at China's coastal city of Hualien. The typhoon caused the Banqiao and Shimantan Dams to collapse, and unprecedented flooding and destruction downstream. Nina dumped 189.5 mm of rain per hour. Estimates put the number of dead at between 171,000 and 229,000.

A satellite view of the wetlands surrounding Delacroix, a fishing town to the southeast of New Orleans, were some of the hardest hit by the hurricane
A "false-color" satellite image taken 10 years after Hurricane Katrina: Marshes and swamps are still in bad shapeImage: NASA/J. Allen

Hurricane Katrina

One of America's most prominent hurricanes pales somewhat by the number of dead, but that's not to say that Hurricane Katrina was any less devastating for the people of New Orleans.

In 2005, Katrina killed less than 2,000 people. You could say the city got off lightly. But many people were displaced or lost — as is often the case when these tropical cyclones hit. The total cost of all the damage was estimated to be about $108 billion (€92 billion). It's one of the worst cases of natural destruction in world history.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite captured a thermal image of Hurricane Maria
A thermal satellite image of Hurricane Maria, when its northwestern quadrant stretched over Puerto RicoImage: NASA Goddard Rapid Response Team

Hurricane Maria

About second in the ranking of cost comes Hurricane Maria. When Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 the initial death toll was put between 64 and 1,000 people.

It's since been increased to 2,975. As with Katrina, even one death is too many, but it was a far lower cost to life than at other times. The cost to property, meanwhile, topped $90 billion.

Cyclone Nargis

Finally, the story of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 can remind us just how many people, in how many countries, a storm can affect once it gets going. It was also a bit of a freak event as it formed in late April of that year. It is classified as one of the deadliest cyclones to hit Asia since the 1991 Bangladesh event.

Myanmar villagers search for their belongings in the debris of houses caused by Cyclone Nargis
Villagers in Myanmar search for their belongings in the debris left by Cyclone Nargis in 2008Image: IFRC/dpa/picture alliance

Nargis took in India, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Laos, Bangladesh and others with its category 4 fury. Rough statistics suggest 140,000 people died, but the real number could be closer to 1 million.

However, really final it is not, because we've still to witness the full destruction leveled by the 2018 season of tropical cyclones. Currently Typhoon Jebi has made a nasty start in Japan and Hurricane Florence at the US coast is close behind. ​​​​​​

It should go without saying that this list of tropical cyclones is far from complete or comprehensive. But it tells a very clear story. If you're lucky enough to get a warning in time, heed that warning and advice, and get to safety as fast as you can. 

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives