The World's Costliest Natural Disasters
If the four horsemen of the apocalypse were natural disasters, they would be tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes and droughts. These four types of natural disasters have inflicted devastating damage throughout the world, costing billions upon billions of dollars and causing thousands of deaths.
And these 10 were some of the worst — at least when it comes to economic damage.
For this article, we only looked at natural disasters, meaning catastrophes like Chernobyl and the Deepwater Horizon Spill didn’t make the list, even though they had enormous economic costs. For those that did make the list, we used initial economic cost estimates and then converted them to 2019 dollars.
Location: Los Angeles County, California
Initial cost: $20-$41.8 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $34-$72 billion
In the pre-dawn morning of Jan 17, 1994, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck San Fernando Valley, crumbling or cracking freeways, homes and commercial buildings. The most tragic event occurred at the 163-unit Northridge Meadows apartment complex, where the building collapsed into the first floor, killing 16. Nine hospitals were evacuated and a combined 82,000 residential and commercial units were destroyed or damaged. About 9,000 people were injured and a total of 72 were killed, either directly or indirectly, by the devastating quake.
Calculating the cost of the Northridge Earthquake is difficult. Initial estimates generally stated $20 billion, but studies released a few years later, counting both the direct and indirect effects of the quake, put the total at $40 billion. Joint research conducted by the University of Southern California and the University of Surrey in Guildford released in 2000 estimates an average reported estimated direct loss of $41.8 billion.
The North American Drought of 1988
Location: United States Midwest
Initial cost: $20 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $43 billion
The heat and ensuing drought of 1988 was so severe that the Mississippi River — which normally dumps about 593,000 cubic feet of water into the Gulf of Mexico every second — withered to a trickle. By July, 45 percent of the country was suffering from drought amid record-high temperatures, with some areas sweltering under 110-degrees Fahrenheit heatwaves.
Wildfires consumed 1.2 million acres in and around Yellowstone National Park. River transportation slowed to a halt, crops dried up, food prices increased, tourism slowed, fish and wildlife perished and more than 5,000 people died.
Location: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and the Caribbean
Initial cost: $50 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $52 billion
Hurricane Irma set new records — it remained a Category 5 hurricane for three days, maintained winds of 185 mph for 37 hours and prompted the evacuation orders for 6.3 million people in Florida.
The storm shattered the Bahamas and Caribbean islands, in Barbuda, 90–95 percent of all dwellings were ruined and the prime minister called the island “barely habitable.” In the United States, 129 people were killed either directly or indirectly; 123 were in Florida.
Location: Northeastern United States, Haiti and Cuba
Initial cost: $65 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $72 billion
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy smashed into the northeastern seaboard of the United States, causing an unparalleled amount of damage for any storm in that area, to date. Hurricane Sandy had several reasons for being so destructive: it occurred on a full moon, which meant Atlantic waves were already strong; it hit when trees were still in full leaf, meaning branches caught wind and were heavier; and it hit a part of the United States that simply isn’t used to hurricanes.
Urban areas were rocked by falling trees and massive, weeks-long power outages and roads were blocked by debris. The New Jersey boardwalk was destroyed. New York City suffered massive flooding on the streets and the subways.
Hurricane Sandy caused an incredible amount of damage, and had a hefty death toll as well. In total, 147 people died — 48 in New York, 12 in New Jersey, five in Connecticut seven in other states. Fifty-four people died in Haiti, 11 died in Cuba, and one died in Canada, according to CNN.
Location: Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and Dominica
Initial Cost: $90 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $93.3 billion
Hurricane Maria was a Category 5 hurricane which leveled Puerto Rico in September 2017. The storm caused an island-wide blackout, which remained in effect for months — five weeks after the storm dissipated, only 26 percent of people had power. It wouldn’t be until nearly a full year later that power would be fully restored throughout the island.
Damages to Dominica were also ruinous—65 people were killed, nearly every single building was damaged and a quarter were destroyed. It’s estimated that Puerto Rico lost $43 billion, while the death toll was enormous. Official estimates have been raised to 2,975 people dead in Puerto Rico, but researchers in another study believe 8,498 deaths is more realistic.
Great Sichuan Earthquake
Location: Sichuan, China
Initial cost: $86-$146.5 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $101.5-$173 billion
The 2008 Sichauan Earthquake is notable not only for its extreme devastation, but also for its incredibly high number of geohazards. The 7.9-magnitude quake caused almost 200,000 landslides which in turn caused 828 landslide dams, also known as quake lakes.
These quake lakes turned rivers into debris damns, pooling dangerous amounts of water behind them, necessitating the need for the Chinese government to send explosive squads to various sites before flood waters could breach and drown surrounding towns.
Remote villages located in the province’s mountainous areas were destroyed or could not be reached by rescuers. Over 90,000 people were counted as dead or missing, and five to 11 million were left homeless.
Location: Southern Texas
Initial cost: $125 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $129.3 billion
Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in south-central Texas, stalled, and dropped an overwhelming amount of rain ( 51 inches worth in parts of Texas). Rising flood waters damaged 500,000 vehicles, flooded 300,000 structures and caused the majority of the 70 deaths directly caused by the storm.
Total damages are estimated and still debated. Economists Michael Hicks and Mark Burton believe the cost to be over $198 billion (in 2017 dollars), with over $77 billion attributed to residential damages alone.
Location: Gulf Coast of the United States
Initial Cost: $125 billion
Inflation-adjusted Cost: $162.7 billion
Hurricane Katrina caused damages as far as Pennsylvania, but it absolutely ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi. In Mississippi, it destroyed Waveland and directly caused 238 deaths throughout the Magnolia State. New Orleans received the most media attention, as six levee breaches caused massive flooding in the fishbowl-shaped city, including three major breaches which completely drowned the Ninth Ward — a neighborhood which, to this day, has not fully recovered.
Hurricane Katrina was not just a viewport into a category 5 hurricane’s immediate destruction, it was also a harsh lesson in the failure of both local and federal governments to evacuate and bring aid to those in the city. Thousands of people were trapped in a boiling hot and humid Superdome without access to food, water or working toilets. Dead bodies were covered with sheets. George Bush gazed at the underwater city from Air Force One, seven days after Katrina made landfall.
Approximately 200,000 people were displaced, and while the true number of how many people died because of Hurricane Katrina will probably never be known, estimates range from 1,100 to 1,833.
Location: Kobe, Japan
Initial cost: $100 billion - $200 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $166-$333.6 billion
On Jan 17, 1995, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Kobe, the sixth largest city of Japan. Bridges, quays and overpasses collapsed, along with over 150,000 buildings. Fires erupted throughout the port city and “incinerated the equivalent of 70 U.S. blocks,” according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
In Kobe and the surrounding metro area, over 300,000 people were left homeless and an estimated 6,400 people were killed.
Thoku Earthquake and Tsunami
Location: East Japan
Initial cost: $315 billion
Inflation-adjusted cost: $356 billion
On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by an earthquake so strong that it moved the island up to 13 feet closer to the United States, ever-so-slightly increased the rotation speed of the Earth and shortened the day by 1.8 millionths of a second, and shifted the axis of the Earth by 6.5 inches.
Within 15 minutes, a tsunami from 33 feet to 121 feet crashed into the coast and up to six miles inland, washing out trains, buildings and bridges along coastal towns and causing massive fires and dam failures. The earthquake (and prior human negligence) caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant to fail, resulting in three nuclear meltdowns and radioactive leaks; it was the worst nuclear power plant failure since Chernobyl, and 154,000 people in the surrounding area were forced to evacuate.
In total, 15,894 people died and 2,558 are still missing. 121,800 buildings were totally destroyed and over a million buildings were either half or partially destroyed, according to the Reconstruction Agency. According to the agency, $315 billion have been allocated to restore damage done by the 9.0 magnitude quake.