2017: Most damaging Atlantic hurricane season of all

Hundreds of people died; final death toll may surpass 1000

     This year has been the most active year for Atlantic hurricanes since Hurricane Katrina flattened and flooded Louisiana in 2005. In the Atlantic Ocean, the US National Hurricane Center tracked 17 named storms (ten hurricanes and seven tropical storms) in 2017. The Center's Hurricane Tracking Chart (at the bottom of this page) shows an active Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic, just offshore of the eastern US and Canada. Six of the ten hurricanes became “major” storms in categories 3, 4, or 5, in which the peak wind speeds exceeded 111, 130, or 157 miles per hour, respectively.

     Winds greater than 110 miles per hour will wreak significant damage to homes, trees, businesses, and power lines. The table below at right, from the National Hurricane Center, describes likely damage to homes from hurricane winds in categories 3, 4, or 5.

     The three major hurricanes that entered the United States this year led to the deaths of at least 234 persons, and destroyed billions of dollars worth of property. Hurricane Harvey entered Texas as a category 4 storm, but as its winds diminished, it unleashed torrential rains totaling 40 to 61 inches (one to 1 ½ meters of water depth) over several days4. Greater Houston was effectively washed out. In September, category-5 Hurricane Irma demolished ten Caribbean island nations or territories, then marched up the entire length of the state of Florida as a category 4. Hurricane Maria (also category 5) devastated first the Virgin Islands, then all of Puerto Rico. More than 95% of the 3.4 million American citizens of Puerto Rico lost electricity and piped water for months. Four weeks after Maria blew through, 80% of the population was still getting by without electric power, according to the New York Times.

The Virgin Islands have a thick green forest cover before Hurricane Irma arrived (top, August 25) but appear brown and denuded after Irma departed (bottom, September10), in these images from NASA's Landsat satellite. Credit: NASA
Hurricane Irma at maximum intensity (category 5) on Sep. 5. Irma is about to directly strike the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, then St. Kitts and Nevis, which are outlined to the left of the eye of the hurricane in this weather satellite image.

The impact on human life

     These three hurricanes killed a lot of people in several countries and territories: at least 84 persons in Harvey, and 95 in Irma. After Hurricane Maria, the official death count by Puerto Rican authorities stood at 55 at the end of November, though officials readily admit this is an undercount. Maria, though, is said to have indirectly led to over 1000 deaths from the lack of electricity and running water over months. Two social scientists, Alexis Santos, at Pennsylvania State University, and Jeffrey Howard, a health scientist, estimate Maria's indirect death toll to be 1,085 and rising in Puerto Rico alone (according to vox.com3). Santos and Howard culled the Vital Statistics records of Puerto Rico to compare the number of deaths in September and October of this year to the historical average of deaths in September and October over the previous seven years. And for this year, they counted only the deaths reported by the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety. There is an excess of more than one thousand deaths in those two months of this year.

The cost in damages

     Maria, Harvey, and Irma were responsible for the most devastation the United States has ever experienced in one year from hurricanes since, arguably, the great Galveston hurricane of 1900: damages in the USA alone amount to the highest on record: $207 billion (with a “b”). 2 Damages from Katrina twelve years ago amounted to $100 billion that the federal government spent, plus $60 billion that private and federal insurance programs spent–for a sum at least $160 billion. That figure is less than we are paying for damages from three hurricanes in 2017.


  1. "Extremely active 2017 Atlantic hurricane season finally ends" (NOAA news, 30 Nov 2017).
  2. Weather Underground, "2017 U.S. Hurricane Damage Estimate of $206.6 Billion: Highest on Record", November 28, 2017.
  3. "New data shows hurricane deaths in Puerto Rico could be 20 times higher than the government claims by Eliza Barclay and Alexia Fernández Campbell, Vox.com.
  4. Historic Hurricane Harvey's Recap”, the Weather Channel, Sep. 4, 2017.
  5. Detailed Meteorological Summary on Hurricane Irma”, NOAA, National Weather Service, 2017.
TABLE: Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, peak winds, and probable damages
Hurricane Category Highest sustained wind speed, miles/hr.
Examples of damages to homes
1 74—95
SOME damage
2 96—110
3 111—129
DEVASTATING damage: There is a very high risk of injury or death to people, livestock, and pets due to flying and falling debris. Nearly all older mobile homes will be destroyed. Unprotected windows will be broken by flying debris. Well-built frame homes can experience major damage.
4 130—156
EXTREME damage: There is a very high risk of injury or death to people due to flying and falling debris. Nearly all older mobile homes will be destroyed. A high percentage of newer mobile homes also will be destroyed. Poorly constructed homes can sustain complete collapse of all walls as well as the loss of the roof structure.
5 >157
CATASTROPHIC damage: People are at very high risk of injury or death from flying or falling debris, even if indoors in mobile homes or framed homes. Almost complete destruction of all mobile homes will occur, regardless of age or construction. A high percentage of frame homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse.

RETURN to Home Page

Hurricane Tracking Chart shows locations, tracks, and intensities of Atlantic hurricanes, tropical storms, and depressions in 2017. Tracks of "major" hurricanes (MH) are purple; other hurricanes (H), red; tropical storms (TS), yellow. Numbers in square boxes at beginning and end of each track reference the hurricane number in the table at upper left. CREDIT: NOAA, National Hurricane Center