Hurricane Intensity and Deadliness

by Don Boudreaux on September 24, 2005

in Current Affairs, Environment, History, Risk and Safety, Standard of Living

As I write, Hurricane Rita is pounding the southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas. Its consequences, in lives lost and property damaged, are not yet known. But I predict that Rita will not go down in history as one of the most deadliest.

CNN.com has a list of the ten most intense hurricanes to hit the U.S. since 1900, and a list of the ten most deadly. (Go here, and then scroll down to find the "Special Report" box on the right; then click on "Top 10 Worst Hurricanes.")

It is interesting to compare the two lists. (Note: it’s not yet clear where to rank Katrina, especially on the intensity scale. She was the third most intense storm ever recorded in the U.S., but this recording was over the Gulf of Mexico. By the time Katrina struck land, her intensity weakened; she was a category 4 storm. Apparently, an official measure of her intensity at landfall isn’t yet available.)

Ten Most Intense

1. Florida Keys 1935

2. Hurricane Camille 1969

3. Hurricane Andrew 1992

4. Florida and Texas 1919

5. Lake Okeechobee 1928

6. Hurricane Donna 1960

7. Louisiana 1915

8. Hurricane Carla 1961

9. Hurricane Hugo 1989

10. Southeast U.S. 1926

Ten Deadliest

1. Galveston, TX 1900 (between 8,000 and 12,000 dead)

2. Florida 1928 (1,836 dead)

(When Katrina’s official death toll is known, it’ll likely rank in third place.)

3. New England 1938 (at least 600)

4. Florida Keys 1935 (423 dead)

5. Hurricane Audrey 1957 (390)

6. Southeast U.S. 1926 (372)

7. Louisiana 1909 (at least 350)

8. Atlantic gulf 1919 (at least 287)

9. Louisiana 1915 (275)

10. Galveston 1915 (275)

(Note: CNN’s Ten Deadliest ranking is confusing, for it lists the New England hurricane of 1938 as the tenth deadliest, but gives its death toll as "at least 600" – which makes it the third-deadliest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since 1900, excluding Katrina.  So I modify the list above to reflect this fact.)

One thing striking about these lists is that at least half of the top-ten most intense storms to hit U.S. land occurred within the past half-century (Camille, Andrew, Donna, Carla, Hugo [and possibly Katrina]) – and yet all but two of the top-ten deadliest storms – Katrina (2005) and Audrey (1957) – occurred much more than a half-century ago.

This fact becomes more remarkable if, as I suspect, the population along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts is higher in the past 50 years than in the first half of the 20th century.

Surely a variety of reasons explain this pattern, but I have no doubt that part of the explanation of the reduced deadliness of hurricanes is our greater material prosperity – stronger building materials, better automobiles and better roads for evacuation and for search and rescue; radio, television, and the Internet for readier spread of information; more advanced technology for forecasting weather; better medical care – some of the fruits of capitalism.

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