Natural Disaster Statistics

Are natural disasters increasing in frequency?

While they may fill up the screen in summer blockbuster movies, natural disasters in the real world are devastating, powerful forces of nature. From California to Australia, wildfires have rendered everything in their path to ash. Deaths from hurricanes are attributed to not only wind and rain, but also flooding and property destruction. As global temperatures rise, the number of catastrophic disasters has also grown. 

Below is information collected from myriad resources about natural disasters and severe storms. The trends and patterns detailed on this page were identified by the Insurance Information Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Zebra's own proprietary data. 

 

Table of contents

  1. Natural disaster statistics in 2020
  2. Global deaths due to natural disasters
  3. Severe weather reports in the United States
  4. Tropical cyclone/hurricanes data
  5. Statistics on wildfires
  6. Statistics on heatwaves
  7. Statistics on floods
  8. Statistics on volcanic eruptions
  9. Severe storms and property damage: a look at insurance

 

2020 natural disaster statistics

In May of 2020, The Zebra investigated the effect of the increased severity and prevalence of natural disasters on the beliefs and actions of the average American. The findings highlighted three areas of concern: financial support, emergency preparedness, and understanding the effects of climate change.

  • The average American may not have the financial resources on hand to weather a major natural disaster.
    • Only 25.8% of respondents have saved more than $2,000 to cover expenses in the event of a severe storm (including thunderstorms), and 20.5% of people have no emergency funds saved at all. One-fifth (20.5%) of Americans said they could not afford to purchase enough insurance to fully protect their property.
    • Most of those surveyed (64.4%) expressed concern that a severe storm would damage their home in the next year, while 22.2% of people believed buying insurance is a waste of money because natural disasters will not affect them.
emergencyfundsfornaturaldisasters

The average American lacks the knowledge or ability to adequately prepare for a severe storm or natural disaster, despite feeling confident about the proper procedures.

  • 51.7% of people said they felt educated about the safety precautions to take before a natural disaster hits. Only 25% of people said they had taken active steps to reduce damage and risk in the event of an oncoming severe storm.
  • 44.4% of people have prepared emergency supplies in preparation for a severe storm, while 35.4% of respondents have stored copies of important documents and contact information online or in a safe (waterproof) place.
  • 36.4% of people were most concerned about an earthquake damaging their property, while 17.9% of people were most concerned about wildfires, and 13.3% were most worried about severe storms (including wind, hail and lightning).
  • On average, flooding kills more than 100 people a year in the U.S., more than any other single weather hazard, including tornadoes and hurricanes, according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).

The average American believes natural disasters are getting worse, but that the frequency of weather events has little to do with climate change.

  • 41.6% of those surveyed agreed natural disasters and severe weather events are happening more frequently than they did 10 years ago. Just 4.5% of people strongly disagreed.
  • 30.6% of people agreed that climate change is increasing their insurance rates, while 19.3% of respondents disagreed.

 

Natural disaster death totals

According to Statista.com:

  • Natural disasters kill an average of 60,000 people per year globally.
  • The deadliest natural disaster in history was the 1931 Floods in China, killing almost four million people, depending on the source.
  • In 2019, natural disasters killed roughly 11,000 people worldwide. The Indian monsoon season floods were the most deadly catastrophe in 2019 with approximately 1,750 reported deaths.
  • Of all the types of natural disasters, hydrological events — such as floods — have had the largest effect on humans and the landscape in the last decade.
  • 2019 was the 11th most expensive disaster year in the 21st century.
  • In 2019, the deadliest natural disaster was Cyclone Idai, which hit the African countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. Idai killed 1,303 people.
  • Disasters and storms affect areas of extreme poverty most severely: high death tolls tend to be centered in low-to-middle income cities and countries without the necessary infrastructure to prevent or combat significant economic upheaval.

 

Natural disaster statistics in the United States

The following data is taken from Wikipedia, Statista.com, and Weather.com:

  • The hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster in North American history, with some death toll estimates reaching 12,000.
  • Between 1900 and 2016, tropical cyclones killed 16,134 Americans.
  • In 2018, 56 severe thunderstorms ravaged the United States. A total of 108 non-thunderstorm disasters occurred in 2018 in the U.S.
  • In June 2008, 11 million people were affected by a major flood that affected much of the midwest, including Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas.
  • Roughly 2,000 people were killed by the earthquake and resulting fires in San Francisco, California, on April 18, 1906.

 

Tropical cyclone statistics

Tropical cyclones are often separated into four different categories:

  • Tropical depressions
  • Tropical storms
  • Hurricanes
  • Major hurricanes.

The delineation between each category depends on wind speed.

  • Tropical depressions are the weakest of all cyclones with winds up to 38 miles per hour (mph).
  • Tropical storms produce winds of 39 to 73 miles per hour.
  • Hurricanes produce winds higher than 75 miles per hour. In the North Pacific region, these types of severe storms are referred to as typhoons. In the Southern Pacific, typhoons and hurricanes are known as cyclones.
  • A major hurricane can sustain winds higher than 111 miles per hour. These storms can be categorized as Category 3, 4, or 5, according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

The following statistics concerning tropical cyclones (or hurricanes) are taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

  • The years 1992 and 1994 experienced the most tropical cyclones in the Central Pacific with 11 separate storms, respectively.
  • Since 1971, August has been by far the worst month for hurricanes, with an average of 74 every year.
  • Between 1971 and 2013, there were 163 separate storm systems in the Central Pacific. 36% of these were hurricanes, 28% were tropical storms, and 36% were tropical depressions.
deaths by hurricane world wide

 

The three most costly hurricanes to affect the United States were Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Harvey. In addition to billions of dollars in damages, these hurricanes cost thousands of Americans their homes or lives. More data on these destructive hurricanes can be found at LiveScience, CNN, and The Balance.

Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29th, 2005.

  • Hurricane Katrina was one of the costliest disasters in modern history, costing the insurance industry some $82.4 billion.
  • Of the 986 deaths attributed directly to Katrina, 40% were caused by drowning. 25% were caused by injury and trauma and 11% were caused by heart conditions.
  • In New Orleans, the population plummeted from more than 484,000 in April 2000 to 230,172 in July 2006, a decline of more than 50%.
  • In all, 1,833 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods.

Hurricane Irma made landfall on Barbuda on September 6th, 2017.

  • Hurricane Irma was recorded as the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in history as a Category 5 storm.
  • When it hit, Irma contained 7 trillion watts of energy. That's nearly two times as much energy used in all the bombs used in World War II.
  • The resulting force of this energy was so powerful that earthquake seismometers recorded it.
  • Irma's attack was considered the second “100-year storm” in one year — one of the first times in 100 years that two storms Category 4 or more severe hit the U.S. in the same year. The second was Hurricane Harvey.
  • According to CNN, Irma killed 129 people. There were 77,000 people in 450 shelters. Florida officials ordered 6.5 million people to evacuate.

Hurricane Harvey hit the coast of Texas on August 25th, 2017, as a Category 4 hurricane.

  • According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), Hurricane Harvey is directly responsible for 68 deaths, with 103 additional deaths related to electrocution, car accidents, and isolation from necessary medical services.
  • This is the largest number of direct deaths from a hurricane in Texas since 1919.
  • Harvey ranks as the second-most costly hurricane to hit the United States since 1900 with about $125 billion in damages.
  • Roughly 13 million people were affected; nearly 135,000 homes damaged or destroyed in the historic flooding, and up to a million cars were wrecked.

 

Wildfire statistics

For more information, refer to Statista’s tables on wildfire statistics.

  • In all of 2019, 50,477 wildfires were reported in the United States, burning about 4.66 million acres of land.
  • In 2019, Arizona experienced the highest number of acres burnt due to wildfires: 384,942. That same year, California experienced the nation’s most wildfires: 8,194.
  • About 4.66 million acres of land were burned in American wildfires in 2019, compared to 7.39 million acres in the year 2000.
  • The world’s deadliest wildfire on record happened in the state of Wisconsin in 1871. The Peshtigo Fire killed 2,500 people, the highest estimate on record.

 

Heat wave statistics

For more information, refer to Statista’s tables on heat wave statistics.

  • Heat waves rarely make lists of the deadliest natural disasters, but in modern times their death tolls have surpassed other phenomena in the United States.
  • Estimated deaths due to heat stress approaching 10,000 in each case and the economic toll each time reached tens of billions of dollars.
  • The 2003 European heat wave caused a death toll of 70,000.
  • Between 1900 and 2016, heat waves have killed more than 4,800 Americans.

 

Flood disaster statistics

According to PropertyCasualty360, here is a break down of the top 10 most expensive floods in the United States by their National Flood Insurance Program payout:

RankingStorm nameDate of LandfallNFIP Payout
1.Hurricane KatrinaAugust 2008$16.26 billion
2.Hurricane HarveyAugust 2007$8.9 billion
3.Superstorm SandyOctober 2012$8.8 billion
4.Hurricane IkeSeptember 2008$2.7 billion
5.Louisiana severe storms/floodingAugust 2016$2.47 billion
6.Hurricane IvanSeptember 2004$1.608 billion
7.Hurricane IreneAugust 2011$1.35 billion
8.Tropical Storm AllisonJune 2001$1.1 billion
9.Hurricane IrmaSeptember 2017$1.05 billion
10.Hurricane MatthewOctober 2016$654 million

 

Volcanic eruptions as a natural disaster

According to Oregon State University, Volcanic Discovery.com, and DoSomething:

  • The eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 killed about 92,000 people. 1815 was known as “the year without summer” as a direct result of Tambora.
  • 57 people were killed when Mount St. Helen erupted in 1980.
  • On average, there are about 50-70 volcanoes that erupt every single year. While most of them are not deadly, some of them erupt multiple times, while others only have one eruption.
  • Kilauea, a shield volcano in Hawaii, has been in an ongoing eruption that started in January 1983. Stromboli, a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the north coast of Sicily, has been in eruption for at least 2,000 years (when first reports are available).
  • The danger area around a volcano is about a 20-mile radius.
  • There are more than 500 active volcanoes in the world. More than half of these volcanoes are part of the "Ring of Fire," a 40,000 km horseshoe shape that contains 452 volcanoes. Not all of these are active.
  • While lava flows are a serious concern, many deaths from a volcanic eruption are attributed to starvation, tsunami (as a result of the eruption), ash flows, and mudflows.

 

How does insurance cover property damage caused by natural disasters?

 

Auto insurance

When it comes to car insurance and natural disasters, most standard insurance policies include liability and collision insurance. However, in order to be properly protected from weather-related damage, you also need comprehensive insurance. This is optional coverage for weather-related damage and will raise your premium by about $31 every six months.

Comprehensive coverage protects your car from damage caused by natural disasters, as long as you carry the coverage well before the damage occurs. This coverage is designed to protect your vehicle against "acts of God", an insurance industry term given to events impacting the vehicle outside the control of the driver.

Most policies that include comprehensive coverage generally cover damage from the below disasters. But always check your insurance policy to verify coverage for these natural disasters.

  • Fire and lightning damage
  • Windstorm or hail damage
  • Smoke damage
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Weight of ice, sleet, or snow (for example, if the roof collapses)

Home insurance

As more people are concerned about how a natural disaster will affect their home, most insurance policies don’t require an “act of God” qualification to ensure coverage. Below are natural disasters not covered by most standard homeowners insurance policies.

Many insurance companies place restrictions on purchasing new insurance a certain number of days prior to the start of a storm. So, if you live in a high-risk area, or you’re entering a common storm or natural disaster season, make sure you get your insurance in place well ahead of time.

hurricane deductible amounts

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Sources

 

Methodology

This report presents the findings of an anonymous online survey of 1,100 U.S. residents age 18 and older residing in all 50 states and Washington D.C, calibrated by age, gender, homeownership status and geographic region. Trap questions were included for quality control. The margin of error for the sample size is +/-3% at a 95% level of confidence. The survey was conducted by independent research firm SurveyGizmo from March 2-16, 2020. download the full report for all survey questions and additional details.

Taylor Covington LinkedIn

An “everyday expert," Taylor researches the finer points of insurance, technology, and personal finance. She is also a frequent contributor to home and lifestyle publications. In her hometown city of Austin, Texas, she can be found reading at Half Priced Books, or eating the world's greatest pizza at Via 313.