Johnstown Flood, 1889
In late May 1889, a huge spring storm formed over Nebraska and Kansas and moved east. Several days later, it arrived—and hovered over—Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Ten inches of rain fell in a little less than 24 hours, causing a local damn to break. The result? A wall of water 30 feet high raced to town at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. And, seeing as this was 1889 and the telephone was still a luxury for the rich, there really wasn’t much by way of a warning system. More than 2,200 Pennsylvanians perished.
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images
Galveston Hurricane, 1900
"In reality, there was no island, just the ocean with houses standing out of the waves which rolled between them." That’s what U.S. Weather Service meteorologist Isaac Cline wrote in his memoirs about fallout from the Category 4 hurricane that obliterated the island of Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900. Estimated death range between 6,000 and 12,000. That’s a tragedy, no doubt, but given the storm surge (16 feet) and that the highest point on the island was only nine feet, it’s a miracle more of the island’s 40,000 inhabitants didn’t perish. Property damage was estimated at $30 million.
Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Black Hills Flood, 1972
Over a six-hour period on June 9, 1972, 15 inches of rain inundated Rapid Creek in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This surge in water lead to a breach in the Canyon Lake Dam, which sent water gushing into the town of Rapid City. The destruction was staggering: 238 deaths, 357 injuries, and 1,335 homes destroyed. And the property damage was over $160 million in 1972 dollars—or just north $866,000,000 in 2013 dollars.
Photo: Dr. Perry Rahn, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
The Great Flood of 1993
For 81 consecutive days in 1993, the mighty Mississippi River stayed at flood stage, killing 50 people and causing $15 billion in flood-related damages. It was "the flood that came and stayed forever," said Robert Holmes, a flood expert with the U.S. Geological Survey. Thousands of people living in the floodplain were evacuated. Water from the flood covered over 17,000 square miles of normally dry land.
Photo: Jeff Christensen/Reuters
Hurricane Katrina, 2005
One of the most debilitating natural disasters to ever hit the United States, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005 and its effects are still felt, more than eight years later. More than 80 percent of New Orleans flooded, and the waters did not recede for weeks. The costliest natural disaster in U.S. history—New Orleans and the surrounding communities suffered $81 million in damages—also killed more than 1,800 people.
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