US Catastrophes: Facts, Trends and Impact

Natural disasters happen all over the U.S. Learning more about national disaster trends can help you understand the risks you face in your area and prepare your home for emergencies.

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Last Updated: 10/20/2022
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What Is a Natural Catastrophe?

A natural catastrophe, or natural disaster, is an extreme event that originates from environmental factors, such as tornadoes or earthquakes. However, not all natural events count as disasters. For an event to qualify as a natural catastrophe, the event must cause insured property losses of at least $25 million, ten deaths, 50 injuries or 2,000 claims.

Understanding natural calamities and their frequency are vital, as knowledge can help you prepare for the worst. Purchasing homeowners insurance and making an emergency exit plan are some of the better-informed decisions you can make to help mitigate natural catastrophes' damages.

Common Natural Disasters

Catastrophes are common depending on their location, with their frequency and severity varying in each state. For instance, tornadoes are the top climate risk in 304 metro areas, such as Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX and Sioux Falls, SD.

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    Winter Storms

    Snowstorms are characterized by snow, sleet or freezing rain, causing significant accumulations of snow or ice. This can lead to blocked roads, disrupted communications and power outages.

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    Floods

    A flood is water overflowing into areas that are normally dry. Floods occur during heavy rains, typhoons, snow melting, and dams & levees breaking. Floods are the most common form of natural disaster in the country and damage several billion dollars worth of property each year.

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    Tornadoes

    A tornado is a violent column of air that extends from the skies to the ground, which can uproot trees and cause debris to fly around the surrounding area. Tornadoes can also be accompanied by large hail, as they often come with supercells, which are violent thunderstorms.

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    Hurricanes

    A hurricane is characterized by strong wind and heavy rain gusts, often causing floods and flying debris. The storm system revolves around an area of low pressure, producing strong winds and heavy rain. However, the wind speed must exceed 63 knots to qualify as a hurricane. Otherwise, it is called a tropical storm.

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    Earthquakes

    An earthquake is when the earth’s surface shakes violently, toppling buildings and causing structures to fall apart. These frequently happen near fault lines, a long crack underneath the earth's surface.

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    Wildfires

    A wildfire is an uncontrollable and unpredictable fire in wildland vegetation, such as forests or prairies. 90% of wildfires are caused by human negligence, with California being the number one state at risk of wildfires.

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    Thunderstorms

    A convective storm is a thunderstorm that can lead to other types of natural catastrophes, such as tornadoes and floods. They are also accompanied by thunder, lightning, hail and even sudden temperature changes.

Trend of Natural Disasters

Natural disasters encompass disasters following geological and meteorological events. In other words, they fall outside of human control. However, not all Acts of God are covered by insurance policy standards. For an event to qualify as a natural catastrophe, it must result in insured property losses of $25 million or more, ten deaths, 50 injuries or 2,000 insurance claims.

With this information in mind, explore the natural disaster statistics in the U.S.

Disaster Events Over Time, 2012-2021

The table above shows the prevalence of certain catastrophes. For instance, tropical cyclones cause the most economic damage at a staggering $79 million but occur only four times a year on average. Meanwhile, flooding causes the least losses but occurs three times as often.

Severe thunderstorms make up over 65% of natural calamities in the country, but they don’t occur in all states. After all, weather conditions vary nationwide. For instance, Texas is one of the most prone states to natural calamities such as tornadoes, riverine flooding, hurricanes and hail.

Knowing the trend of natural disasters in your area can inform your disaster preparedness plan based on your location.

To jumpstart your research, here are the most common disasters by U.S. region:

  • West Pacific: Earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, landslides
  • West Mountain: Earthquakes, wildfires, winter storms
  • Midwest: Earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires
  • South and Southeast: Earthquakes, landslides, tornadoes, hurricanes
  • Mid-Atlantic and New England: Hurricanes, winter storms
  • U.S. Territories: Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions

Based on these statistics alone, residents in the West (Pacific) parts of the U.S. face the most natural calamities.

Fatalities From Natural Disasters

Insurance companies state that a natural event must have resulted in at least ten casualties, 50 injuries, 2,000 claims on structural damages or $25 million in property losses. Otherwise, its underwriters might not classify the instance as a qualified natural disaster. As a policy owner, studying this information will help you gauge the likelihood of insurers approving and rejecting claims.

Total Natural Disaster Events and Fatalities, 2012-2021

When computing the average annual deaths caused by natural disasters, it’s vital to consider frequency. For instance, roughly 60 severe thunderstorms hit the U.S. annually and caused over 160 fatalities in 2021 alone. Alternatively, wildfires, droughts and heatwaves don’t occur as often, but in 2021, they caused over 220 deaths, and the year prior, 43 deaths.

The Worst US Natural Catastrophes

While many catastrophes happen in the U.S., some are worse than others. For instance, Hurricane Katrina caused roughly $180 billion in damages, making it the most destructive hurricane to hit the U.S.

Take a look at some of the worst natural catastrophes to happen below.

  • Disaster
    Date
    Main Affected Areas
    Estimated Deaths
    Estimated Cost*
  • Hurricane Katrina

    August 2005

    Gulf Coast States

    ∼1,800

    $180 billion

  • Hurricane Harvey

    August 2017

    Texas, Louisiana

    ∼100

    $143.8 billion

  • Hurricane Maria

    September 2017

    Puerto Rico

    ∼3,000

    $103.5 billion

  • Hurricane Sandy

    October 2012

    New York; New Jersey

    ∼159

    $80 billion

  • Hurricane Ida

    August 2021

    Louisiana; Mississippi

    ∼87

    $76.5 billion

  • Hurricane Irma

    September 2017

    Florida; Puerto Rico

    ∼100

    $57.5 billion

  • Hurricane Andrew

    August 1992

    Florida; Louisiana

    ∼65

    $54.3 billion

  • North American
    Heat Wave

    June to August 1988

    Midwest

    ∼5,000 to
    ∼10,000

    $53.3 billion

  • Great Flood of 1993

    June to mid-August
    1993

    Midwest

    ∼48

    $41.7 billion

  • Hurricane Ike

    September 2008

    Louisiana; Texas

    ∼100

    $39 billion

∗Dollar figures adjusted for inflation

The Cost of Natural Catastrophes

Although natural events are only defined as catastrophes if they meet certain criteria, you’ll find that most qualified catastrophes have caused way more than $25 million in damages, especially in recent years. Statistics show annual weather and climate disaster losses have exceeded $10 billion since 2015.

Cost of Natural Disasters, in Billions of USD, 1980-2021

The graph above showcases how, in recent years, natural disasters have been reaching new all-time highs in estimated economic damages. Between 2017 and 2021, losses ranged from $106 billion to $366 billion, with 2017 having the highest costs. These were the years the most infamous natural catastrophes occurred, like hurricanes Ida, Harvey, Maria and Irma.

Estimated Insured Property Losses, U.S. Natural Catastrophes

Insurance plays a critical role in post-disaster recovery. The graph above shows that the millions of policyholders affected by hurricanes in 2017 filed over $144 billion in property damage claims. Thankfully, losses weren’t nearly as high in the other years. However, the average homeowner would have had trouble recouping their losses had they decided to go without insurance.

No one can accurately predict when disasters strike. However, you'll better understand your insurance needs by understanding homeowners' average losses during turbulent times.

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PROTECT YOUR HOME’S VALUE

Any home can be severely damaged by the forces of nature. However, you can lighten the impact on your finances by ensuring you have hazard insurance.

Standard home insurance policies do not often cover you against natural disasters, which is why getting an extra layer of protection is essential — especially if you live in an area prone to catastrophes.

Natural Disasters FAQ

Natural catastrophes are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions on this subject.

Expert Insights on US Natural Disasters

Understanding natural disasters in the U.S. is essential for any homeowner to know the risks associated with their residence.

To help you protect your home, we’ve gathered insights from some experts in the field.

  1. How can homeowners bounce back from a natural disaster?
  2. How can homeowners plan ahead for a natural disaster?
  3. What lessons can homeowners glean from some of America’s worst natural disasters?
Shaun Martin
Shaun Martin

Owner & CEO of Denver Home Buyer

Zach Tetley
Zach Tetley

Co-Founder of Nexus Home Buyers

Boyd Rudy
Boyd Rudy

Associate Broker at Dwellings Michigan

Related Content

Understand your area’s level of risk to natural catastrophes and how to prepare for them by visiting MoneyGeek’s other related articles.

About the Author


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Nathan Paulus is the director of content marketing at MoneyGeek. Nathan has been creating content for nearly 10 years and is particularly engaged in personal finance, investing, and property management. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of St. Thomas Houston.


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