2011: The Year of the Disaster

More

With historic floods, droughts, and tornadoes, this year has broken the record for the number of billion-dollar calamities

joplin - flickr- kansas city distrcit-body.jpg

Joplin, Mo. after an EF-5 tornado devastated the city in May / (Flickr/Kansascitydistrict)

Wildfires are raging in Texas. Parts of the Midwest remain in splinters from April's intense tornado outbreaks. The Northeast is still cleaning up the wreckage from Hurricane Irene. 


If it seems like this year has been remarkable in terms of widespread meteorological chaos, that's because it has. According to a report from the National Climatic Data Center, 10 separate weather events this year have each inflicted more than $1 billion worth of damage. That beats a previous record of nine events in 2008, and it's only September. 

In total, these 10 events caused $35 billion of destruction, which is five times more costly than all of last year's disasters combined. Additionally, the Data Center finds the number of billion dollar disasters per year has been rising due to a more violent climate combined with population increases and economic development in disaster-prone areas. 

The data from the report is still preliminary, but Jake Crouch, climatologist and study co-author, assumes the $35 billion will most likely increase; there's no end in sight to the Texas drought and hurricane season is just getting started. Also, once tallied, it's estimated that the destruction and flooding from Hurricane Irene will add another $5.5 billion to this figure. 

"We still have several months left [of Hurricane season]," Crouch says. "That number of billion dollar disasters could go up. There is a forecast for an above average tropical cyclone season, and if any of those do hit the U.S., this number is definitely going to go up."

Tornadoes have been both the deadliest and costliest weather event this year. They accounted for $22.5 billion in damage and at least 544 deaths -- 12 times more fatalities than last year, making this the fourth deadliest year on record for tornadoes. The worst year for tornado fatalities was in 1925, when 794 died.

No one event from 2011 comes even close to the $200 billion devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2006. But this year's disasters are diverse and widespread, affecting coastal regions as well as the heartland. Likewise, FEMA's budget is starting to be stretched thin. In August, it was reported that the agency's funds had dipped below $1 billion, forcing FEMA to reallocate aid from recovery efforts in Missouri to the Northeast.

Members of congress on both sides of the aisle have pledged to add funding to the agency if necessary; however, there is debate over where those funds should originate. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans tried to block a procedural measure to grant $6.9 billion to the agency, on the grounds that funds would have to be redirected from elsewhere. The Los Angeles Times reports that the agency's disaster relief fund is down to $400 million and would run out by the end of September if not replenished. 

Despite a decline in funds, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate tells The Atlantic the agency will continue to respond to disasters, with life threatening scenarios as his first priority. " It is pretty straight forward, " Fugate said. "You are going to focus on the life safety areas first and then start working the other issues."

Of all the disasters this year, Fugate says flooding is often the hardest for families to recover from, both in terms of rebuilding and financial loss.

(Read the entire interview with Fugate here.)

"The toughest one is flooding because so few people actually carry flood insurance if they are not in the high risk flood zones, since your homeowners' policy doesn't cover insurance," he said. "Our FEMA programs don't really make people whole, they are really designed to help get people started." 

As tough as this year has been for Americans, it's worth remembering that it pales in comparison to what's been happening overseas. Our $35 billion is a fraction of the $309 billion in damage caused by Japan's 8.9 earthquake and its subsequent tsunami and nuclear reactor crisis. Altogether, these events took more than 10,000 lives.

Here's a look at the 10 disasters that have individually cost the United States more than $1 billion this year:

Jump to comments
Presented by

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

Just In