How Does Sandy Stack Up Against the Worst Storms in World History?

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Early estimates suggest the hurricane's economic fallout will be severe, but the storm could have been far worse in other ways.

RTR39RLY-615.jpgEduardo Munoz/Reuters

Part of what makes Hurricane Sandy so gripping is its dramatic impact on a region of the United States that rarely sees such intense storm activity. This is only the third hurricane to have hit Maryland, Virginia, Delaware or New Jersey in the 161 years since the National Weather Service began keeping track. Sandy struck hardest in New York, one of the world's financial and media capitals, and that alone has been enough to concentrate global attention on the hurricane's effects. As I write, "FEMA" and "Queens" are both still trending on Twitter worldwide.

A report this morning from researchers at Kinetic Analysis Corp. estimates Sandy has caused over $20 billion in damages -- so far. But that's an incomplete measure of the hurricane's impact, just one of the myriad ways we come to grips with the scale of a disaster in its aftermath. How does Hurricane Sandy stack up against the worst storms of all time?

RTR39RM8-615.jpgEduardo Munoz/Reuters

As much destruction as it's caused the mid-Atlantic, Sandy, a category-1 storm that has killed 26 and counting, still barely stands up to the deadliest storm in history. That dishonor goes to the Bhola cyclone of 1970, which struck Bangladesh as a category 3 storm and killed as many as 500,000 people -- 250 times more than Hurricane Katrina's death toll in 2005. The cyclone's floods virtually erased whole fields and low-lying villages with sustained winds approaching 115 miles an hour.

Then there was Super Typhoon Nina, which blew out China's Banqiao dam. The dam was designed to weather a once-in-a-millennium storm involving 12 inches of rain per day; in 1975, however, Nina brought on rainfall exceeding 40 inches daily -- more than a year's worth in 24 hours. The dam's collapse killed over 26,000 Chinese in the initial flood and 145,000 thanks to the following disease and starvation. The storm caused some $1.2 billion in damage -- far less than Sandy's estimated bill, but far worse in terms of human casualties.

RTR39RCZ-615.jpgAdrees Latif/Reuters

What about historical storms in the United States? The National Weather Service's records (PDF) puts Galveston, Texas' 1900 hurricane at the top of the most-deadly list. A category-4 storm with sustained winds of 145 miles an hour, the hurricane killed 8,000 people and caused over $113 million in damage in today's dollars. But as lethal as that storm was, it doesn't even make the chart when it comes to the most expensive U.S. hurricane, which was -- you guessed it -- 2005's Katrina, which racked up $108 billion in costs, many of which are still being felt today.

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As storms go, Sandy and its effects could have been far worse. Officials are still assessing the extent of the damage, of course -- but at the very least, Americans can be thankful that Sandy dumped only a fraction of the rain on the eastern seaboard that fell on China in 1975.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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