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Which areas of the country have sustained the most hurricane damage?
Since 1851, when recording of hurricane data first started, a total of 462 hurricanes have made landfall in 18 U.S. states, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). No state has been hit harder during that span than Florida.
The southernmost U.S. state has been directly hit by about 120 total hurricanes — 37 of which were classified as “major”, or a Category 3 to 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which measures a hurricane’s intensity at the time of landfall in the area experiencing the strongest winds. For context, Florida has seen almost twice as many hurricanes as Texas, the second-most hurricane ravaged state, in the more than 175 year period of NOAA record-keeping.
Now you’re probably asking yourself, what even is a hurricane? What separates a hurricane from other storms? Well, you came to the right place.
A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone that forms when water warms up to around 80 degrees near the equator. Around spring and early summer, when the water gets warmer in the Northern Hemisphere, it turns into moist air and rises, creating what is called a low-pressure system. (Think of low pressure as clouds, precipitation, and heavy winds that spin counterclockwise inward, and high pressure as cool, dry air with calmer wind that flows clockwise outward.)
As the pressure difference between the highs and lows increases, the winds begin to pick up at the center, or “eye” (the lowest pressure area of the storm), forming a counterclockwise swirl of wind. This creates what is essentially an engine, gaining size and momentum as it moves through more warm water. Once the cyclone winds reach 74 miles per hour, it officially becomes a hurricane . The highest incidence of these storms, believe it or not, occurs during hurricane season (June 1–November 30), when the water is the warmest.
Storm surge, not wind, is the most dangerous component of a hurricane, according to the NOAA. Storm surge is water that is pushed onto land by tropical storm winds — a major hurricane can create a surge of up to 20 feet high or more, causing severe flooding and extensive property damage after landfall occurs. It’s estimated that storm surge is responsible for half of hurricane-related fatalities.
Storm surge is also one of the primary culprits of uninsured property loss, as many coastal area residents are without flood insurance because they incorrectly assume their home insurance covers hurricane-related flood damage. As hurricanes continue to intensify in size and frequency due to climate change, it’s especially important for Gulf and Atlantic Coast homeowners to have flood coverage, a type of property insurance that can cost as little as $400 a year depending on where you live.
The NOAA data cited in this story is specifically for Category 1 through 5 hurricanes that have made landfall. Landfall is a shortened way of saying that the eye of the storm has reached land while the hurricane was still intact and hasn’t yet been downgraded to a tropical storm (winds of 39–73 mph) or tropical depression (winds of less than 39 mph) .
Bear in mind it’s possible for the hurricane’s strongest winds to happen over land even if landfall doesn’t occur. On the flip side, it’s possible for a hurricane to make landfall and have its strongest winds over the water.
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Every state on the Atlantic and Gulf Coast — a total of 18 — has experienced hurricane landfall, according to NOAA data. As you can see, states south of the Mason-Dixon line have been on the receiving end of most of those direct hits, accounting for 87% of all hurricanes that have made landfall in the U.S.
But just because a hurricane doesn’t make landfall doesn’t mean it can’t cause catastrophic damage to areas within its reach. Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, intensified to a Category 3 storm (winds between 111–129 mph), but by the time it reached Maryland, New Jersey and New York — the states to which it inflicted the most damage — it had already “weakened” to a tropical storm. Sandy caused around $20 billion in damage to 16 states.
Massachusetts and Virginia have both been hit with 12 hurricanes apiece, but Massachusetts has experienced the lone major hurricane of the two. A Category 3 hurricane aptly named “Eastern New England” made landfall in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts all the way back in 1869. However both states are frequently impacted by hurricanes that don’t reach their coastline. 2019’s Hurricane Dorian brushed the Massachusetts coast, producing tropical storm-force winds but not actually making landfall.
New York is the last northern state in the top 10, as it has suffered 15 direct hits from hurricanes, three of which have been Category 3 or higher. The most infamous in recent memory was Hurricane Sandy in 2012, one of the most expensive natural disasters ever. Sandy never officially made landfall in New York, but it did have hurricane-force winds by the time it arrived in the Big Apple on October 28th. The storm’s wind gusts topped 100 mph in parts of the New York Metropolitan area, all but shutting down parts of the Tri-state area for months.
With 19 hurricanes, eight of which have been major, Mississippi is the 8th most hurricane-prone state in the country. Keep in mind that the Magnolia State only has 44 miles of coastline (second least of any state south of the Mason-Dixon line) so although Mississippi may not see many direct hits, it still experiences its share of tropical storms.
With 22 hurricanes, three of which have been classified as major, Georgia experiences the 7th most hurricanes in the country. The most recent hit was Hurricane Michael in 2018, a hurricane that reached the Florida panhandle as a Category 5 (peak winds of 160 mph) but had weakened to a Category 2 by the time it hit the Peach State.
Similar to Mississippi, Alabama has a small stretch of coastline (53 miles) but has nevertheless managed to see the 6th most hurricanes of any U.S. state. Also known for its land-based cyclones, Alabama also sees its share of hurricane warnings once hurricane season rolls around. Bama has been directly hit by 24 hurricanes since 1851, three of which have been Category 3 or higher.
Just north of Georgia, South Carolina has a slightly longer stretch of coastline and has therefore experienced a few more direct tropical storm hits than its southern neighbor. Of the 30 hurricanes South Carolina has experienced, five have been classified as major, including Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston as a Category 4 (wind gusts between 131–156 mph), producing the highest storm tide heights ever recorded along the U.S. East Coast and causing nearly $7 billion in damage.
Aside from Florida, perhaps no state has been hit with more expensive and deadly storms than Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was by far the most destructive, killing almost 1,600 Pelican State residents and causing approximately $108 billion in damage. Since Katrina, Louisiana has been hit by seven hurricanes, including one major storm.
With 57 landfall hurricanes, North Carolina is the third most hurricane-prone state in the country. The Tar Heel state has experienced 7 major hurricanes, with the most destructive being Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The Category 4 tropical cyclone produced a storm surge of over 18 feet, killing 19 and inflicting $163 million in damages to the Carolinas.
With 64 total hurricanes, 19 of which are major, Texas trails only Florida in hurricane frequency. Before 2017, the last major hurricane to strike the Texas coast was Celia back on August 3rd, 1970. But on August 25th, 2017, that changed when Hurricane Harvey hit the middle of the Texas coast. The Category 4 storm had actually weakened to a tropical depression before rapidly escalating into a major hurricane. Hurricane Harvey is one of the most devastating hurricanes in recorded history, causing around $125 billion in damages with a bulk of the destruction due to flooding after the hurricane.
The most hurricane-prone state in the country is Florida, a state that has been hit with 120 hurricanes since 1851, with 37 of those being classified as major. Although Florida hasn’t been hit with as many destructive hurricanes in recent years as some of its southern neighbors, the Sunshine State has seen many of the most deadly storms in history. Hurricane Andrew, a major hurricane that made landfall on August 24th, 1992, is the second most recent Category 5 to make landfall in the contiguous U.S. The major storm took out more than 25,000 homes in Florida alone, single-handedly forcing the residential home insurance sector to overhaul how it insures homes on the Atlantic coast.
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