Hurricane Gustav Facts, Damage and Costs

Gustave Damage Could Have Been $15 Billion If It Remained Category 4

a worker and resident during Hurricane Gustav
••• Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Hurricane Gustav was a Category 2 hurricane when it hit the Louisiana shore on September 1, 2008. It cost $6.9 billion in U.S. damages when adjusted for inflation. Its death toll was 112 people, including 11 in the United States. It indirectly caused another 41 deaths in Louisiana. Around 1.5 million people were without power.

On August 30, 2008, the New Orleans mayor issued an evacuation. Some 1.9 million people followed orders, creating the largest evacuation in Louisiana history. Federal disaster areas were declared in 34 parishes. Maximum rainfall was 21 inches at Larto Lake, Louisiana. Gustav produced 41 tornadoes throughout the Gulf region.

Timeline

Hurricane Gustav lasted nine days. It traveled from the Caribbean to the Great Lakes, affecting 4,301 sites.

August 25: Gustav formed as a tropical depression, but grew to a tropical storm, near the Caribbean.

August 26: It became a hurricane as it approached Hispaniola. It lost strength as it crossed Haiti, but regained power before it reached Jamaica.

August 30: Gustav became a Category 4 hurricane as it hit Cuba. It then weakened.

September 1: Gustav was a Category 2 hurricane when it hit Louisiana.

September 2 and 3: Gustav dropped five to seven inches of rain on Mississippi, Alabama, and northwestern Florida.

September 4 - 5: Remnants of the storm passed north to the Great Lakes.

Impact on Oil Industry

Gustav devastated the oil industry. It caused an estimated loss of $8 billion to $10 billion in oil production. All Gulf offshore oil rigs and Louisiana land-based oil refineries were shut down in advance. Shipping was suspended. That included 5.6 million barrels of crude oil. That's 56% of the imported oil that enters the Gulf every day.

Louisiana produced 22% of America's domestic crude oil and 10.5% of its natural gas. People were concerned because Hurricane Katrina had caused oil prices to rise $3 a barrel. That's because it affected 19% of U.S. oil production. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed 113 offshore oil and gas platforms and damaged 457 oil and gas pipelines. They spilled almost as much oil as the Exxon Valdez

Damage to New Orleans

As important as these industries are, the huge concern was the damage Gustav could do to New Orleans. The city was just recovering from Hurricane Katrina, which hit three years earlier. Tourism had just returned to 7.1 million visitors. In 2006, the visitor level was only 2.6 million. New Orleans' port had suffered $260 million in damage.

Fortunately, Gustav's damage to the city was much less. There was only minor flooding, downed trees, and scattered branches.

Impact on GDP

After Hurricane Gustav hit in September 2008, the economy contracted. U.S. gross domestic product fell 8.4% in the fourth quarter (October through December.) Real GDP was just $14.557 trillion. In November, the Dow fell to 7,552.29 from its 14,164.53 high set on October 9, 2007. 

But all that was not caused by the Gustav. The hurricane hit during the 2008 financial crisis, the worst recession since the Great Depression. Any economic impact by the storm was lost in the freefall as global financial markets almost collapsed. 

In comparison, Hurricane Katrina had sent GDP growth down by 1.3% in Q4 2005. It had been 3.8% in Q3. But the storm's impact was short-lived since the economy was still growing strongly. By Q1 2006, GDP growth bounced back to a robust 4.8%.

Potential Damage

Gustav could have been $15 billion if it had remained a Category 4 hurricane. The Louisiana Economic Development Department estimated it could have cost $5 billion in that state alone. Gustav was headed for the heart of Louisiana's sugar industry. Its crop value was $500 million, according to the American Sugar Cane League. This area of Louisiana also had 50 chemical plants, which produced 25% of the nation's chemicals. 

The nearby Mississippi coast was home to 11 casinos, which take in $1.3 billion annually. The state estimated Gustav could have cost $4.5 billion to $10 billion in property damage. This included:

  • $2 billion to $4.5 billion for homes, autos, and other personal property,
  • $1 billion to $2.5 billion for business property,
  • $1.5 to $3 billion for damage to agriculture, timber, and fisheries, as well as public facilities. (Source: AP, "Gustav's possible economic hit is widespread," August 31, 2008.)

How Gustav's Damage Compares to Other Hurricanes

Gustav was the 20th costliest hurricane in U.S. history. It was less destructive than the others because it was a Category 2. Also, when it hit New Orleans, the levees held.

The most destructive hurricane hit New Orleans in 2005. Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 that overwhelmed the city. Its death toll was 1,836 people and cost $160 billion in damage when adjusted for inflation.

Two weeks after Gustav, Hurricane Ike hit Louisiana. It was the seventh costliest hurricane. Total U.S. property damage was $34.8 billion when adjusted for inflation. That's five times greater than Gustav's damage.

The other most damaging hurricanes were more powerful or hit developed areas. The second worst, Hurricane Harvey cost $125 billion. It was a Category 4 hurricane that dropped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston.

Hurricane Maria, third worst, hit Puerto Rico in 2017. This Category 5 storm created $90 billion in damage.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012. It was a tropical storm that left $70.2 billion in damage.

The fifth worst, Hurricane Irma, hit Florida in 2017. This Category 5 storm cost $50 billion.

Three Ways Global Warming Made Gustav Worse

Global warming contributed to Gustav's impact in three ways. First, rising sea levels made flooding more likely. The average global sea level has risen 8.9 inches between 1880 and 2015. That’s much faster than in the previous 2,700 years. The pace is quickening. Between 2000 and 2010, the sea level rose 1.84 inches

Second, since 1880, the earth’s average temperature has risen about 1 degree Celsius or 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Global warming creates higher ocean temperatures at deeper depths to feed hurricane strength. It also creates more humidity in the air and fewer winds around the storm. Since warmer air holds more moisture, that makes it less likely to rain. But when the rain does fall, it does so in a torrent. This creates more volume of rainfall during a hurricane.    

Third, global warming slows weather patterns by weakening the jet stream. That’s a river of wind high in the atmosphere that races from west to east at speeds up to 275 miles an hour.. It moves north and south in waves, compelled by the contrasts in temperature between the Arctic and temperate zones. Unfortunately, the Arctic’s temperature is rising faster than that of the rest of the world. That slows down the jet stream. That allows Gustav and other storms to hover over one area and create more damage. Storms have slowed by 10% since 1949.

M.I.T. models predict more frequent and damaging hurricanes to come. By 2035, 11 percent of these will fall under Categories 3, 4, and 5. In addition, 32 super-extreme storms are predicted. These storms will have winds above 190 miles per hour. These are more powerful than Category 5 hurricanes. Scientists say these should be classified as Category 6.