Natural disasters are natural events that have a profound and negative impact on human life or property. They are often thought of as weather events, but some — like earthquakes and landslides — can occur independently of the weather. In addition, not all natural disasters officially receive a governmental “disaster declaration,” as this plea for aid is typically reserved for the most damaging events.
In fact, some of the deadliest natural disasters in the U.S. don’t cause any damage to property. When these disasters strike, there’s no mass pandemonium, no evacuation plan and no national news coverage. There’s just grief.
Part of keeping yourself and your family safe involves understanding the natural disasters most common in your area. For example, there’s no reason to practice tornado drills on the California coast, but recognizing a rip current could save your life the next time you head to the beach.
To help you understand the impact of natural disasters, we’ve compiled 2019 data from the National Weather Service into graphs and maps. On the graph below, the bar length corresponds to the number of fatalities associated with each event. The color of each bar symbolizes how much monetary damage each type of event caused, with the specific numbers located immediately to the right of each bar.
The Deadliest Natural Hazards
After waves break on the shore, they slide back toward the ocean or lake. Deep channels of that “backward” water can accelerate very quickly and sweep unsuspecting swimmers far out to sea in the blink of an eye. Rip currents rarely cause monetary damage but claim the lives of dozens of swimmers each year. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rip currents have been documented in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and along the shores of the Great Lakes, but rip currents remain a threat in any body of water that has waves.
Exposure to extreme heat can raise internal body temperatures and cause the hypothalamus — the structure in our brain responsible for temperature regulation — to fail. Irreparable brain damage can occur with a high fever, and victims can suddenly die of heatstroke without medical intervention. Older people or those with certain pre-existing conditions are more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat. Although deadly, extreme heat causes little financial damage.
Floods can cause devastating structural damage and numerous fatalities. River floods occur when heavy upstream precipitation causes the river to rise beyond the height of its banks downstream. These floods tend to rise slowly and recede just as gradually.
On the other hand, flash floods form as a violent surge of water after a period of heavy rainfall, catching people by surprise, uprooting trees, washing out bridges and causing significant structural damage beyond just making things wet. Flash floods can occur anywhere, not necessarily where there’s a river or body of water.
According to the National Weather Service, most of the people who perish in floodwaters were driving at the time. Children were also notably vulnerable to drowning in a flood, and most flood-related fatalities in 2019 occurred in Texas.
Tornadoes are classified on a scale of F0 to F5 based on their wind speed. F5 tornadoes, which can reach wind speeds of over 200 miles per hour, are the most deadly and costly, but only 59 were recorded in the U.S. between 1950 and 2018. Tornadoes form when cool air currents from the northwest collide with warm air currents from the southeast and southwest. Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska experience a significant percentage of the tornadoes in America, as do states in the southeast.
Thunderstorm winds are strong, straight-line winds that do not rotate into a tornado. The most dangerous and prolonged thunderstorm winds are called Derechos. Derechos can reach over 240 miles per hour, stronger than an F5 tornado. However, even thunderstorm winds reaching “just” 100 miles per hour can be damaging and deadly, especially due to flying debris.
The human body is 60% water, which makes it possible for us to freeze to death when exposed to extremely cold temperatures. In fact, extreme cold can kill an unprepared person within hours. Frostbite, which happens when the body’s tissues freeze and die, can start to affect someone within minutes. Although there’s no solid definition of “extreme cold,” any situation is dangerous if you lose body heat faster than you can generate it. Extreme cold causes virtually no structural damage but can kill people of all ages if they’re unlucky enough to get caught in it.
The Most Financially Damaging Natural Disasters
In 2019, river floods and flash floods accounted for more than $3.7 billion dollars in damage to both properties and crops in the U.S. Twenty-five disaster declarations were issued for floods across numerous states, primarily in the Midwest. In fact, the Midwest flooding that occurred in the spring was estimated to cost $3 billion, accounting for most of the flood damage that year. Iowa reported about $1.6 billion in damage from that disaster, while Nebraska estimated its damage to total around $1.4 billion.
Interestingly, flash floods inflicted relatively little crop damage ($116 million) overall, but river floods inflicted $1.2 billion of damage to crops nationwide in 2019. This is no coincidence: the most fertile farmland is located near waterways because flooding actually deposits nutrients into the soil. On the flip side, flash floods caused more property damage than river floods.
Tornadoes caused the greatest property damage of all natural disasters in 2019. More than $3.1 billion in property damage was reported in relation to tornadoes that year, but only $5.67 million in crop damage was attributed to tornadoes. Only two disaster declarations were announced for tornadoes that year, but that doesn’t mean tornadoes were rare. In fact, there were about 400 more tornadoes in 2019 than in 2018, and the total number of recorded tornadoes was 1,520. Tornado-related fatalities were also up in 2019 compared to 2018. Over half of the 41 U.S. deaths attributed to tornadoes in 2019 occurred in Lee County, Alabama, on March 3. In addition to the high death toll, the Alabama tornado was estimated to over cost $5.8 in property and crop damage.
The Impact of Natural Disasters by State
Damage per Capita
South Dakota experienced the most damage per capita in 2019, followed by Nebraska and Texas. This statistic is undoubtedly linked to the amount of crop damage South Dakota experienced that year, which was the highest in the nation and totaled $926.55 million. That’s nearly six times higher than Minnesota’s $162.19 million, which represents the second-highest amount of crop damage incurred in 2019. South Dakota is 89.1% farmland, so perhaps it’s no surprise that ruined crops represented the majority of damage in the state when it experienced severe river flooding in 2019.
According to the National Weather Service, 408 people died due to extreme weather events in 2019. Texas experienced the highest number of fatalities (37) in a single state. Thirty-three people died in both Florida and in California, and 31 perished in Alabama. The only states to experience zero weather-related fatalities that year were Alaska, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Compared to other causes of death, such as drug overdose, firearm death or diseases, the risk of dying in a weather-related event is low.
Natural disasters inflicted over $7.7 billion in damage in 2019, representing just 0.04% of the GDP that year. An overwhelming amount of the total damage occurred in Texas ($3.1 billion). South Dakota logged $1.05 billion in total damage, and Ohio takes third place with natural disaster damage totaling $691 million. Only one state, Delaware, logged absolutely no weather-related damage in 2019.
Texas sustained an alarming amount of property damage in 2019, estimated to total $3.092 billion. Three major disaster declarations were issued in Texas in 2019, one of which pertained to the severe flooding caused by Tropical Storm Imeda. One reason why Texas sustained so much property damage could be that Houston — the area directly hit by Imeda — simply has a high concentration of expensive properties. To put Texas’s property damage into context, consider that Ohio — the state with the next-highest amount — reported only $692 million in property damage.
Natural disasters in the U.S. can’t always be predicted or prevented, resulting in tragic loss of life and devastating damage to homes, businesses and livelihoods. Some states are more prone to natural disasters than others thanks to their unique geography, and the level of damage incurred around the country also depends on the inherent value of the properties or crops in disaster-stricken areas.
Our graphs and maps were created using data publicly available from the National Weather Service, including the 2019 Summary of Hazardous Weather Fatalities, Injuries and Damage Costs by State and the Summary of Natural Hazard Statistics for 2019 in the United States.