If you are reading this in the United States, you are experiencing a disaster—maybe more than one. Hurricane Sally hammered Alabama and the Florida panhandle last week, submerging homes and leaving tens of thousands without power. The West Coast is still wreathed in smoke from its worst fire season ever by acres burned, during which entire towns have been incinerated. Coronavirus cases are spiking in Wisconsin, but major disasters are layered on top of the coronavirus pandemic everywhere. “For the first time in American history, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and five territories have been approved for major disaster declarations for the same event,” a FEMA spokesperson told me, via email. The entire country is literally a disaster area.
Disasters have been trending upward for decades, but 2020 is a very bad year. After forecasters exhausted the official list of alphabetical storm names, they moved onto the Greek alphabet. Subtropical Storm Alpha petered out over the weekend, and Tropical Storm Beta is now menacing the Gulf Coast. We still have more than two months to go in hurricane season. Twice as many disasters caused more than $1 billion in damage each in the 2010s than in the 2000s, according to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But “that really has to be adjusted for the size of the population and the size of the economy," Jay Zagorsky, an economist at Boston University, says. He’s done the math, and even after adjusting for growing gross domestic product, the rise in disasters is still significant.
Disasters are by definition sudden and terrible, but their causes are typically complex and multifarious. One cause of their rise is climate change, which worsens both western wildfires and eastern hurricanes. Forest management, planning and zoning policies that encourage sprawl into forests and floodplains, and aging infrastructure all play a role too. Systemic racism and deepening inequality mean many Americans don’t have the resources to avoid or bounce back from a disaster. Some rightly fear the police or government officials to whom they are told to turn for help.