There were the hurricanes that rained down biblical floods on Texas and Florida and devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. There were the fires that smoked wine country and coated Montana and Oregon in ash, and the fires that are burning down houses in Santa Barbara, California. Then, there were the king tides that flooded Miami, the heat waves that seared the Southwest, the tornadoes that scarred the Southeast, and the rains that never came in the Cascades. No wonder the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has deemed this to be the second most extreme year, weather-wise, in the past century.
That extreme weather has taken a devastating and unknowable human toll, on families from San Juan to San Francisco. And it has taken economic one as well. It now seems a near certainty that 2017 will be the most expensive year in American history in terms of natural disasters—and a preview of the trillions of dollars of costs related to climate change yet to come.
The effect is perhaps clearest in terms of property damage, in the United States’ territories as well as in the states, with governments, insurers, and individuals counting up the losses from torn-apart homes, flooded cars, downed bridges, destroyed electrical grids, and shuttered hospitals. Early in the fall, Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, which had already suffered a decade-long recession. The government there has asked for $95 billion to rebuild the electric grid, infrastructure, and homes, and the storm caused an estimated $85 billion in insured losses. The credit-rating agency Moody’s puts the estimate of the storm’s damage at $40 billion in lost economic output and $55 billion in property damage, in a region with a GDP of about $100 billion a year. The numbers are similarly devastating in the Virgin Islands, which were hit by Hurricane Irma.