The legacies of Atlantic tropical cyclones span many cultures
and thousands of years. Early evidence of these storms predates
extant weather records. Geologists believe that layers of sediment
at the bottom of a lake in Alabama were brought there from the
nearby Gulf of Mexico by storm surges associated with intense
hurricanes that occurred as much as 3,000 years ago (Liu and Fearn
1993). Similarly, sediment cores from the Florida west coast
indicate exceptional freshwater floods during strong hurricanes
more than a thousand years ago (Davis et al. 1989).
Perhaps the first human record of Atlantic tropical cyclones
appears in Mayan hieroglyphics (Konrad 1985). By customarily
building their major settlements away from the hurricane-prone
coastline, the Mayans practiced a method of disaster mitigation
(Konrad 1985) that, if rigorously applied today, would reduce the
potential for devastation along coastal areas (e.g., Pilkey et al.
1984; Sheets 1990).
Many storms left important marks on regional history. In
1609, a fleet of ships carrying settlers from England to Virginia
was struck by a hurricane. Some of the ships were damaged and part
of the fleet grounded at Bermuda (The Encyclopedia Americana 1994).
The passengers became Bermuda's first inhabitants and their stories
helped inspire Shakespeare's writing of The Tempest (Carpenter and
In several incidents, tropical cyclones destroyed otherwise
invincible colonial armadas (Millas 1968; Hughes 1987). The French
lost their bid to control the Atlantic coast of North America when
a 1565 hurricane dispersed their fleet, allowing the Spanish to
capture France's Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville,
Florida. In 1640, a hurricane partially destroyed a large Dutch
fleet apparently poised to attack Havana. Another naval disaster
occurred in 1666 to Lord Willoughby (the British Governor of
Barbados) and his fleet of seventeen ships and nearly 2,000 troops.
The fleet was caught in a hurricane near the Lesser Antilles. Only
a few vessels were ever heard from again and the French captured
some of the survivors. According to Sugg (1968), the 1640 and 1666
events secured, more or less, control of Cuba by the Spaniards and
Guadeloupe by the French. More than two centuries later, commenting
on the Spanish-American War, President McKinley declared that he
feared a hurricane more than the Spanish Navy (Dunn 1971).
McKinley's concern translated to a revamped United States hurricane
warning service, forerunner of today's National Hurricane Center
Some historical events left scars. In 1495, the small town of
Isabella, founded on Hispaniola by Columbus, became the first
European settlement destroyed by a hurricane (Carpenter and
Carpenter 1993). Other communities would suffer a similar fate.
There is even conjecture that a hurricane was responsible for the
mysterious disappearance of the original Roanoke Island settlement
(i.e., the "Lost Colony") in 1588 (Hunter 1982). More certainly,
in 1886, the town of Indianola, Texas was destroyed by a hurricane.
It was never rebuilt. The 1900 "Galveston" hurricane severely
damaged much of that city and, with it, Galveston's preeminence as
the financial capital of that part of the country (e.g., Hughes
Surviving quantitative documentation about specific storms
generally begins late in the 15th century during the period of New
World exploration. A succession of chronologies brings the record
forward to modern times (e.g., Poey 1862; Tannehill 1940; Ludlum
1963; Millas 1968).
Hebert et al. (1993) frequently update their popular
statistical summary about hurricanes that affected the United
States this century. Their study, which includes a tabulation of
the largest United States losses of life caused by those storms,
has no counterpart for earlier tropical cyclones or for casualties
incurred elsewhere. In this presentation we extend their work,
providing a catalog of Atlantic tropical cyclones1
associated with loss of life during the period 1492-1994.
To document casualties and attendant circumstances we relied
on books and articles about the weather, newspaper reports about
storms, and accounts of shipwrecks. Some of these sources
consulted hundreds or thousands of original documents. They
provided an extensive, though admittedly not exhaustive, data base.
Indeed, if current Atlantic tropical cyclone activity is
representative of the past five centuries, then a staggering number
of those systems (upwards of 5000!) developed during that period.
Some storms were harmless. Others likely caused loss of life that
was never documented, or was recorded in documents subsequently
lost to deterioration with age, war, or fire (e.g., Marx 1983). It
is hoped that still other cases not identified here will be
uncovered in future investigations.
The catalog comprises two lists. The first list (Appendix 1),
like Hebert et al. (1993), provides information about tropical
cyclones responsible for at least 25 deaths. The second list
(Appendix 2) identifies storms associated with loss of life that,
while not quantified, may have reached at least 25, according to
records about those events.
1 In this context, "Atlantic" will refer to the North Atlantic
Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico.