How Winter Storms Can Be Destructive: The 10 Most Expensive Storms Since 1980

Chris Dolce
Published: December 7, 2018

Winter storms can unleash an array of hazardous weather, causing destruction that sometimes amounts to billions of dollars in damage.

Some of the destructive impacts we can see in a given winter storm include: 

  • Ice: The weight of freezing rain on trees and power lines can have a crippling impact. Damage can begin with a quarter inch of accumulation. There can be widespread destruction with power outages lasting for days with thick accumulations of a half inch or more.
  • Wet Snow: Snow sticks easily to trees and power lines when it's moisture-laden. Much like ice accumulation, this adds extra weight and stress, increasing the chance of damage. This is particularly a threat in fall and early spring storms.
  • Snow on Roofs: Accumulations of several feet from one or multiple storms can add stress to roofs, causing them to collapse.
  • Coastal Flooding: On the East Coast, strong winds blowing onshore in combination with high tides can inundate the coastline, causing damage to structures and significant beach erosion.
  • High Winds: When strong winds accompany accumulations of snow and ice it can add stress and enhance the potential for tree damage and power outages. Strong winds from winter storms can also trigger power outages and cause tree damage even in areas where there is no significant snow or ice.
  • Flooding After the Snow: A sharp warm-up or heavy rain following a winter storm with an expansive snowpack can set the stage for major flooding.

The most costly winter storms on record share one or more of the destructive traits listed above.

Since 1980, NOAA has documented 16 winter storms with a damage cost of a billion dollars or more. Winter Storm Riley from March 2018 is the most recent entry on the list.

That said, billion-dollar disasters from winter storms are far less common than those caused by severe thunderstorms and tropical cyclones.

Below we lay out the 10 most costly winter storms since 1980, according to NOAA. All dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation.

1. Blizzard of 1993: $9.8 Billion

On a pedestal by itself, the Blizzard of 1993 caused $9.8 billion in damage as it roared through the East Coast March 11-14. It remains the most costly winter storm to strike the United States since at least 1980.

Two to four feet of snow was reported in the eastern states and blizzard conditions occurred in some areas. 

High winds triggered power outages in 10 million households and coastal flooding damaged or destroyed homes on the East Coast.

The storm system also brought severe thunderstorms with damaging winds and tornadoes to Florida.

Satellite view of the Blizzard of 1993.
(NOAA)

2. Southeast Ice Storm of 1994: $5.2 Billion

Ice storms have a destructive reputation, so it's no surprise one of them ranks this high on the list of billion-dollar winter storms.

The Feb. 8-13, 1994 ice storm caused extensive damage in the South totaling $5.2 billion.

Of all the states affected, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama saw the worst impacts.

More than 2 million lost power. A half million were still without power three days after the storm. Some residents in Mississippi were without power a month after the storm.

Downed trees and limbs caused widespread damage to homes, businesses and vehicles. Many roads were blocked as well, making travel nearly impossible in some areas.

3. Blizzard of 1996 and Its Flooding Aftermath: $4.9 Billion

The blizzard of Jan. 6-8, 1996 paralyzed cities from Washington, D.C. to Boston.

A foot or more snow fell from Kentucky and southern Ohio eastward to western North Carolina and northward into central New England. Two or more feet of snow buried locations from southwestern Virginia through the highly populated metropolitan centers between Washington D.C. and New York City.

The combination of heavy snow, strong winds and freezing rain downed many power lines. Some flat roofs collapsed or buckled after additional snow fell in the days following the storm.

A warm-up and moderate to heavy rain followed after the storm, triggering snowmelt which caused widespread and deadly flooding.

Parts of the Delaware, Susquehanna, upper Ohio, Potomac and James River basins experienced significant flooding, according to NOAA.

The flooding destroyed roads and bridges and forced 200,000 to flee their homes.

Total damage from the winter weather and flooding was $4.9 billion.

A New Yorker makes her way down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan Jan. 8, 1996 during a blizzard that shut down airports and caused the mayor to declare a state of emergency.
(ROBERT MILLER/AFP/Getty Images)

4. 1992 Northeast Winter Storm: $4.5 Billion

This winter storm caused $4.5 billion in damage as it crawled slowly along the Northeast coast Dec. 10-13, 1992.

Widespread and destructive coastal flooding occurred from the Jersey Shore to southeastern New England

High winds also accompanied the storm with gusts of 60 to 90 mph reported from southeastern Pennsylvania into southern New Jersey.

Heavy snow impacted the interior Northeast and parts of New England. On the milder side of the storm, heavy rain contributed to river flooding.

5. Mid-February 2015 Winter Storm: $3.2 Billion

Winter Storm Neptune and its associated wave of cold air affected the central and eastern United States Feb. 14-20, 2015.

Heavy snow buried Boston, adding to the hefty snowpack already in place from earlier storms. The snow put stress on the roofs of structures and slowed transportation, according to NOAA.

Total damage from this event was estimated to be $3.2 billion. Massachusetts alone accounted for about $1 billion in damage.

A woman walks through drifting snow in Cambridge, Mass., Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.
(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Rounding out the top 10 on NOAA's list are five additional winter storms that caused at least $2 billion in damage when adjusted for inflation.

6. Jan. 5-8, 2014 Midwest, Northeast and Southeast: $2.3 billion

7. March 1-3, 2018 Winter Storm Riley: $2.2 billion

8. Jan. 5-9, 1998 Northeast Ice Storm: $2.2 billion

9. Feb. 1-3, 2011 Central (Blizzard) and Eastern United States Winter Storm: $2 billion

10. Jan. 19-22, 1985 Winter Storm and Cold Wave in Central and Eastern States: $2 billion


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