Disaster fatigue worsens with more than $ 1 billion extreme weather events
Spectacularly costly disasters are our new normal.
Major hurricanes devastate coastal communities and cause flooding thousands of kilometers inland. Forest fires have been burning for months. Heat waves are scorching places where people don’t have air conditioning. Events like these have all happened this year and they have contributed to another huge annual bill of billion dollar disasters tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Cleaning up and recovering from these events can take weeks, months, or even years. According to our recent analysis at Climate Central, that recovery time between events is decreasing: the United States now averages a billion dollar disaster every 20 days.
NOAA began tracking billion dollar disasters in 1980. During the 1980s, the United States experienced, on average, three disasters per year, giving agencies an average of 66 days between disasters. In 2020, we had 22 disasters, leaving only 14 days of recovery between events.
NOAA just announced that in the first nine months of this year, we have already exceeded total disaster costs for all of last year. And we’re about to set a new record for the total number of disasters, with 18 of them through to the end of September. This once again means the country has had little time to recover between events: an average of 15 days so far in 2021.
The physical resources and human efforts required to restore a sense of normalcy in disaster-affected places are limited and are strained with each new event. Due to the magnitude of these events, they require help from local, state and federal governments. With a limited amount of funds and stakeholders, the increase in the number and size of events is straining an already stressed system. For example, CAL FIRE has reported at least 5,000 people – and up to 15,000 – in the field daily since mid-summer.
There is no doubt that climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and more serious. For example, hurricanes are the costliest disasters in the NOAA database. Due to climate change, the oceans are warmer, fueling bigger and wetter storms. Heat waves and floods are also some of the deadliest and most costly disasters. Due to climate change, heat waves are hotter and more likely. Due to climate change, there is an increase in water in the atmosphere, resulting in more precipitation. No region of the United States is immune to the impacts.
The point is that warming and the impacts of warming will continue to worsen as long as CO2 emissions increase. This means that we expect the number of serious events to increase over the next several decades. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focused on the risk of compound disasters, primarily disasters that follow quickly. Reducing carbon emissions and limiting warming, ideally to 1.5 degrees Celsius, is the way forward to reduce risk. Next month, representatives from around the world will gather for the UN climate change conference COP26 in Glasgow to discuss how to get there. What they decide will influence the future of every American community. But if efforts to limit the rise in global temperatures are successful, future generations of Americans may not have to endure the pain or costs of these disasters every week, or worse, every day.
Jen Brady is Chief Data Analyst at Climate Central, identifying notable climate trends, patterns and events. Brady previously worked at the US EPA to assess the climate change impacts of waste management and contaminated land.