7 Worst Natural Disasters for the 21st Century

Natural disasters have the ability to affect many people, not only through the physical destruction they cause, but also through injury, homelessness and even death. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan last week remind us that Mother Nature can be extremely destructive.

Here we list the seven worst natural catastrophes of the 21st century. There have been many more natural disasters since the start of the millennium, but these seven were the most severe given their cost, the injuries inflicted and the lives they claimed.

Catastrophe statistics are from the Insurance Information Institute (III).

7. Hurricane Katrina

Date: August 2005

Location: Louisiana, Mississippi, as well as other areas of the Southern United States

Fatalities: 1,300

Total losses/insured losses: $125 billion/$62.2 billion

Indelible media footage of people waiting to be rescued from rooftops as turbulent water continued to rise around them made Hurricane Katrina one of the most unforgettable natural disasters in recent American history. Today, an ongoing effort to rebuild New Orleans keeps Hurricane Katrina at the forefront of American minds.

The hurricane itself claimed 1,300 lives, but property damage was far more substantial. Total economic losses are calculated at $125 billion, and insured losses amount to $62.2 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). Although preliminary estimates from the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan are already higher, Hurricane Katrina currently ranks as the 21st Century’s most expensive natural catastrophe to date.

6. 2003 European heat wave

Date: June-August of 2003

Location: France, Italy, Germany and throughout Europe

Fatalities: 70,000

Total losses/insured losses: $13.8 billion/$20 million

While the effects of hurricanes, tornadoes and many other natural disasters can be seen and measured immediately, other catastrophes take an entire season before death tolls and losses are clear. Such was the case in the summer of 2003 when a heat wave killed more than 70,000 people throughout Europe; most deaths were concentrated in the elderly population.

The idea that high temperatures could wreck deadly havoc may seem somewhat strange, but air-conditioning is a rarity throughout much of Europe, and especially in France. In these normally cooler climates, abnormally hot temperatures and the government’s inability to locate those most vulnerable to hyperthermia combined to cause many of the heat-related deaths.

5. 2005 Kashmir earthquake

Date: October 2005

Location: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan

Fatalities: 88,000

Total losses/insured losses: $5.2 billion/$5 million

Measured at magnitude 7.6, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake devastated Pakistan, as well as parts of India and Afghanistan. The fatalities attributed to this natural disaster numbered 88,000 and the total losses amounted to $5.2 billion, according to the III. In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that more than 69,000 people were injured and at least 32,000 buildings collapsed during this natural catastrophe.

4. Cyclone Nargis

Date: May 2008

Location: Myanmar (Burma), Bay of Bengal

Fatalities: 140,000

Total losses/insured losses: $4 billion/not applicable

The Cyclone Nargis came out of the North Indian Ocean during the storm season of 2008 with winds as strong as 121 miles per hour. When the storm hit landfall, it killed 140,000 people. In the process, about $4 billion worth of damage was sustained. To make matters worse, international relief efforts were rebuffed by the country’s military junta immediately after the storm hit Myanmar. That left many survivors of the storm without necessary supplies.

3. 2008 Sichuan earthquake

Date: May 2008

Location: Sichuan Province, China

Fatalities: 84,000

Total losses/insured losses: $85 billion/$300 million

In less than 2 minutes the 7.9 magnitude Sichuan earthquake affected 45.5 million people in China, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In this earthquake’s aftermath, 15 million people were evacuated from their homes, more than 5 million were left homeless and over 84,000 were killed. In fact, the number of deaths from this terrifying temblor could be higher, as 18,000 people remain missing to this day.

2. Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004

Date: December 2004

Location: Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and Malaysia

Fatalities: 220,000

Total losses/insured losses: $10 billion/$1 billion

Few disasters have had the same level of international impact as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. On Dec. 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake originating in Sumatra, Indonesia caused a catastrophic tsunami that would claim the lives of more than 220,000 people. The earthquake and resulting tsunami affected Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Maldives, Indonesia and many other countries in Asia and northern Africa. The deadly megathrust earthquake was estimated at magnitude 9.0.

1. 2010 Haiti earthquake

Date: January 2010

Location: Haiti

Fatalities: 222,570

Total losses/insured losses: $8 billion/$200 million

Twelve days into 2010, the 7.0 magnitude Haiti earthquake killed close to 222,570 people and left an additional 3 million Haitians affected in some way. While the intensity of the earthquake was not as pronounced as the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan, Haiti’s shoddy construction standards and the absence of building codes made the catastrophe particularly devastating. Following the earthquake, survivors slept on the streets either out of necessity or for fear that standing structures were unstable. Haiti is still in recovery in the aftermath of this quake.

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