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The Deadliest Atlantic Tropical Cyclones, 1492-1996

by Edward N. Rappaport and Jose Fernandez-Partagas
28 May 1995

NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS NHC 47
updated 22 April 1997 by Jack Beven


  1. Introduction
  2. Tropical Cyclone Terminology
  3. Casualty Information
  4. Storm Lists and Statistics
  5. Conclusions
  6. Acknowledgements and References
  7. Appendix 1: Cyclones with 25+ deaths
  8. Appendix 2: Cyclones that may have 25+ deaths
  9. Notes to the Appendices
  10. References to the Appendices

1. Introduction

The legacies of Atlantic tropical cyclones span many cultures and thousands of years. Early evidence of these storms predates extant weather records. Geologists believe that layers of sediment at the bottom of a lake in Alabama were brought there from the nearby Gulf of Mexico by storm surges associated with intense hurricanes that occurred as much as 3,000 years ago (Liu and Fearn 1993). Similarly, sediment cores from the Florida west coast indicate exceptional freshwater floods during strong hurricanes more than a thousand years ago (Davis et al. 1989).

Perhaps the first human record of Atlantic tropical cyclones appears in Mayan hieroglyphics (Konrad 1985). By customarily building their major settlements away from the hurricane-prone coastline, the Mayans practiced a method of disaster mitigation (Konrad 1985) that, if rigorously applied today, would reduce the potential for devastation along coastal areas (e.g., Pilkey et al. 1984; Sheets 1990).

Many storms left important marks on regional history. In 1609, a fleet of ships carrying settlers from England to Virginia was struck by a hurricane. Some of the ships were damaged and part of the fleet grounded at Bermuda (The Encyclopedia Americana 1994). The passengers became Bermuda's first inhabitants and their stories helped inspire Shakespeare's writing of The Tempest (Carpenter and Carpenter 1993).

In several incidents, tropical cyclones destroyed otherwise invincible colonial armadas (Millas 1968; Hughes 1987). The French lost their bid to control the Atlantic coast of North America when a 1565 hurricane dispersed their fleet, allowing the Spanish to capture France's Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. In 1640, a hurricane partially destroyed a large Dutch fleet apparently poised to attack Havana. Another naval disaster occurred in 1666 to Lord Willoughby (the British Governor of Barbados) and his fleet of seventeen ships and nearly 2,000 troops. The fleet was caught in a hurricane near the Lesser Antilles. Only a few vessels were ever heard from again and the French captured some of the survivors. According to Sugg (1968), the 1640 and 1666 events secured, more or less, control of Cuba by the Spaniards and Guadeloupe by the French. More than two centuries later, commenting on the Spanish-American War, President McKinley declared that he feared a hurricane more than the Spanish Navy (Dunn 1971). McKinley's concern translated to a revamped United States hurricane warning service, forerunner of today's National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Surviving quantitative documentation about specific storms generally begins late in the 15th century during the period of New World exploration. A succession of chronologies brings the record forward to modern times (e.g., Poey 1862; Tannehill 1940; Ludlum 1963; Millas 1968).

Hebert et al. (1993) frequently update their popular statistical summary about hurricanes that affected the United States this century. Their study, which includes a tabulation of the largest United States losses of life caused by those storms, has no counterpart for earlier tropical cyclones or for casualties incurred elsewhere. In this presentation we extend their work, providing a catalog of Atlantic tropical cyclones1 associated with loss of life during the period 1492-1994.

To document casualties and attendant circumstances we relied on books and articles about the weather, newspaper reports about storms, and accounts of shipwrecks. Some of these sources consulted hundreds or thousands of original documents. They provided an extensive, though admittedly not exhaustive, data base. Indeed, if current Atlantic tropical cyclone activity is representative of the past five centuries, then a staggering number of those systems (upwards of 5000!) developed during that period. Some storms were harmless. Others likely caused loss of life that was never documented, or was recorded in documents subsequently lost to deterioration with age, war, or fire (e.g., Marx 1983). It is hoped that still other cases not identified here will be uncovered in future investigations.

The catalog comprises two lists. The first list (Appendix 1), like Hebert et al. (1993), provides information about tropical cyclones responsible for at least 25 deaths. The second list (Appendix 2) identifies storms associated with loss of life that, while not quantified, may have reached at least 25, according to records about those events.

Next: Tropical Cyclone Terms

1 In this context, "Atlantic" will refer to the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico.

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Page last modified: Thursday, 29-Jun-2006 13:28:03 UTC