Floods: World’s Biggest Killers

Floods: World’s Biggest Killers

Believe it or not, but the most common natural disaster on Earth and the leading cause of fatalities by natural disaster worldwide for all of history is flooding.

Tsunamis, rain storms, and tidal surges kill more people than any other natural disaster. Because water is and has been an essential element to live, mankind has always been in close proximity to lakes, rivers, marshlands and oceans.

The map here, provided by the American Red Cross, shows a county-by-county overview of floods between 1965 and 2003 that were large enough to be declared natural disasters by the President. Red areas represent four or more declarations for those counties over the four decades.

Virtually every county in the United States has suffered some amount of flooding. Last year, in the United States, there were only 38 deaths related to flooding, but according to NOAA, since 1940 there have been 3,309 fatalities due to floods (note that deaths due to hurricanes and rip tides, sometimes the cause of flooding, are listed separately). Overall, the odds of being caught in a flood in the United States are far more likely than an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, or blizzard.

Five of the Largest Floods in U.S. History

Mississippi River, 1927

In April and May of 1927, 26,000 square miles of land across seven Midwestern states were inundated with water from the Mississippi River. It killed 500 people and left 600,000 homeless. Interesting Fact: At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river was 80 miles wide.

Ohio River, 1937

The damage from the Ohio River’s largest flood on record cost $20 million and killed 385 people. It left such a swath of flooding that some people were displaced 30 miles from their home. Interesting Fact: Twelve inches of rain fell in Ohio in only seven days.

Mississippi River, 1993

With $15 billon dollars in damages, this was the costliest flood in history, affecting nearly 30,000 square miles of land but only caused 32 fatalities.

Interesting Fact: Though the flood reached higher levels and caused more damage, the Great Floods of 1844 and 1951 discharged more water into the Mississippi Valley.

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Hurricane Katrina was this country’s mostly costly natural disaster, with an estimated $51 billion in damages and more than 1,800 fatalities. The highest winds recorded were clocked at 175 mph. Interesting Fact: 80 percent of the city of New Orleans was underwater.

Big Thompson Canyon, Colorado, 1976

Starting with a huge thunderstorm and rain event high up the canyon, dropping nearly eight inches of rain in one hour, a nearly 20-foot wall of water swept down the canyon, clearing away everything in its path. One hundred forty-three people were killed. Interesting Fact: Because of this flood, building codes for canyons were forever changed.


Worldwide Floods by the Numbers (1980-2010)

1 in 500,000: Odds of dying in a Tsunami

2.8 billion: People affected by flooding

539,811: People killed by flooding

361,974: People injured by flooding

4.5 million: People left homeless by flooding

4,093: Floods reported in the United States

131: Average deadly floods per year

69: Percentage of flood deaths in Southeast Asia


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the August 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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