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These Are the Strongest Hurricanes Ever to Hit the United States

By Elizabeth Yuko of Reader's Digest | Slide 1 of 11: So far, the 21st century has seen its fair share of devastating hurricanes, with names like Katrina, Sandy, Maria, Harvey and, most recently, Ian living in our collective minds as forces that upended communities. Given how much death and destruction these storms caused, it seems likely that one of them was the strongest hurricane ever to hit the United States. But based on U.S. weather records—which date back to 1880—that's not the case. So which storm ranks as the worst in American history? To quell your curiosity, we dove into historical records and rounded up the top 10 strongest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. And after reading about these powerful storms, why not brush up on some natural disaster knowledge? Whether you want to know more about how to prepare for a hurricane or where hurricane names come from, find yourself asking "what is a wildfire?" or want to learn how to prepare for a tornado, we've got you covered in any kind of weather. What makes for the strongest hurricane ever? The first thing to note is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has no official metric to designate which hurricanes are the strongest. But media reports on the "strongest hurricanes ever" typically refer to one of two things: the storm's central pressure or its wind speed at landfall. Our ranking of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the United States is based on wind speed at landfall. This is also the metric NOAA uses to place storms into the numerical categories we hear about in weather reports—officially known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale—ranging from Category 1 (lower wind speeds) to Category 5 (the highest wind speeds). A total of four Category 5 hurricanes have hit the United States since 1880. According to John Cangialosi, a senior hurricane specialist at NOAA's National Hurricane Center, this is only one way of measuring and assessing a hurricane. "Statistically [and] historically, wind speed isn't the biggest problem with hurricanes," he tells Reader's Digest. "The biggest problem is water hazards—specifically, storm surge." For example, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana in 2005, it was a Category 3 storm. So in terms of wind speed, it was somewhere in the middle. But as Cangialosi points out, "it hit a major metropolitan area, caused levees to break and caused a horrific storm surge," resulting in extensive damage and loss of life—which is the part that sticks with us. Similarly, Hurricane Sandy was barely a Category 1 storm when it hit New York City in 2012. "Storm strength and the devastation are linked, but they're not a perfect correlation," Cangialosi explains. "It's not like the category definitely tells you what the damage is going to be. It's more complicated than that." Get Reader's Digest’s Read Up newsletter for travel, tech, cleaning, humor and fun facts all week long.

A storm's brewing

So far, the 21st century has seen its fair share of devastating hurricanes, with names like Katrina, Sandy, Maria, Harvey and, most recently, Ian living in our collective minds as forces that upended communities. Given how much death and destruction these storms caused, it seems likely that one of them was the strongest hurricane ever to hit the United States. But based on U.S. weather records—which date back to 1880—that's not the case.

So which storm ranks as the worst in American history? To quell your curiosity, we dove into historical records and rounded up the top 10 strongest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. And after reading about these powerful storms, why not brush up on some natural disaster knowledge? Whether you want to know more about how to prepare for a hurricane or where hurricane names come from, find yourself asking "what is a wildfire?" or want to learn how to prepare for a tornado, we've got you covered in any kind of weather.

What makes for the strongest hurricane ever?

The first thing to note is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has no official metric to designate which hurricanes are the strongest. But media reports on the "strongest hurricanes ever" typically refer to one of two things: the storm's central pressure or its wind speed at landfall.

Our ranking of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the United States is based on wind speed at landfall. This is also the metric NOAA uses to place storms into the numerical categories we hear about in weather reports—officially known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale—ranging from Category 1 (lower wind speeds) to Category 5 (the highest wind speeds). A total of four Category 5 hurricanes have hit the United States since 1880.

According to John Cangialosi, a senior hurricane specialist at NOAA's National Hurricane Center, this is only one way of measuring and assessing a hurricane. "Statistically [and] historically, wind speed isn't the biggest problem with hurricanes," he tells Reader's Digest. "The biggest problem is water hazards—specifically, storm surge."

For example, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana in 2005, it was a Category 3 storm. So in terms of wind speed, it was somewhere in the middle. But as Cangialosi points out, "it hit a major metropolitan area, caused levees to break and caused a horrific storm surge," resulting in extensive damage and loss of life—which is the part that sticks with us. Similarly, Hurricane Sandy was barely a Category 1 storm when it hit New York City in 2012.

"Storm strength and the devastation are linked, but they're not a perfect correlation," Cangialosi explains. "It's not like the category definitely tells you what the damage is going to be. It's more complicated than that."

Get Reader's Digest’s Read Up newsletter for travel, tech, cleaning, humor and fun facts all week long.

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