Special Report

The Most Costly Natural Disasters of All Time

Natural disasters spare no country. Whether it’s flooding due to torrential downpours from a hurricane or cyclone or a lack of rain that parches the earth, every continent endures a weather-related catastrophe, leaving behind a wake of death and destruction. A humanitarian crisis inevitably follows these disasters, with countries taking months and years to recover.

Each region often suffers the same type of natural disaster. Hurricanes have pounded the Gulf States of the U.S. for centuries, just as cyclones have struck South Pacific islands like the Philippines. (Here are the states with the most tornadoes.)

To identify the five most costly natural disasters in each of the world’s six regions since 1970, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the economic losses associated with weather disasters from the World Meteorological Organization report, “WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes (1970–2019).” The six regions are: Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Central America and the Caribbean, South America, and the South-West Pacific.  

Notable from the list is the immense price countries pay in terms of lives lost and economic harm. Even more striking is how the socioeconomic status of the country or region shapes the ultimate fallout from the disaster. Poorer, still developing regions tend to suffer more deaths but lower economic losses, while richer, more developed countries weather a significant economic hit.

According to the United Nations country classification, 91% of all deaths from weather, climate and water hazards occurred in developing countries. Meanwhile, 59% of economic losses registered in developed economies. 

The World Bank country classifications highlighted similar trends. More than 80% of deaths centered in low- and lower-middle-income countries. Conversely, nearly 90% of the economic losses came in upper-middle- and high-income economies.

Besides the human and fiscal carnage, disasters often have political repercussions. How well and swiftly leaders respond to a catastrophe leaves a lingering impression on the minds of the public — for good or bad. Hurricane Katrina is remembered as much for its destruction as for then-President George W. Bush’s tepid response that tainted his presidency. (See U.S. cities where hurricanes would cause the most damage.)

Click here to see the most costly natural disasters of all time