Record-breaking Year for Costliest US Weather Disasters Warns NOAA

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This year has marked a new record in the history of the United States for the costliest weather and climate disasters, thanks to severe storms, a fatal wildfire in Maui, and the devastating Hurricane Idalia.

With a third of the year still to unfold, the country has already been subjected to 23 disasters, each with a price tag of a billion dollars or more. This is according to fresh data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and overtakes the previous yearly record of 22 such events in 2020.

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The calamitous billion-dollar incidents have exacted a staggering toll, claiming 253 lives directly and indirectly, and inflicting $57.6 billion worth of damage. This calculation does not include the cost from Hurricane Idalia.

The NOAA is still reviewing whether a few other recent events, such as the drought occurring in the South and Midwest and the Tropical Storm Hilary which struck southern California, have exceeded the billion-dollar damage threshold.

Rachel Cleetus, a policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, believes the cost and impact of these extreme weather events have been heightened by the decision to construct and reconstruct in areas identified as high-risk. The toll is further amplified by the intensifying climate crisis.

Cleetus states that the escalating frequency and cost of these disasters, many of which reveal the undeniable footprints of climate change, are a jarring reminder of our perilous trajectory. She adds that our development choices could possibly place more people and economic assets in potential danger zones, thereby emboldening the cost of disasters when they eventually strike.

This year’s financial impact, though substantial, is still dwarfed by the $383 billion cost documented for 2017, which holds the record as America’s most expensive disaster year due to a catastrophic wildfire season in California and a wave of massive hurricanes.

Adam Smith, a climatologist with NOAA, points out that disasters are occurring with a disturbing frequency, putting enormous pressure on federal, state, and local resources. Describing this trend, he observes, “More frequent disasters and shorter time intervals between disasters often result in less time and resources available to respond, recover and prepare for future events.”

Simultaneously, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief fund is feeling the pinch. The organization’s administrator, Deanne Criswell, forewarned that without replenishment, the fund is at risk of going under.

The White House has a requested a boost of $16 billion from Congress to refuel the fund due to the “intensity of disaster activity around the nation.” While the Senate has recently approved this request, it remains to be seen when the House will follow suit.

Criswell explains that FEMA has to combat not only summer weather extremes, but also soaring year-round disaster tolls. As she puts it, “It’s a year-round operational tempo like we have never seen before.”

FEMA recently released $3 billion in climate resilience grants funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law with the aim of enhancing community resistance to stronger storms, rising flood waters, and wildfires.

As the toll of disasters persistently rises, Cleetus insists that legislators need to allocate more resources to improve the resilience of buildings and infrastructure to withstand the impacts of extreme weather. “This kind of a dire situation is likely to happen year after year as climate change worsens,” warns Cleetus. “As a nation, we have to invest much more in getting out ahead of disasters and investing in resilience to better protect people and infrastructure, not just picking up the pieces after the fact.”