Weather-related Expenses Will Keep Stacking Up by the Billions

Forest Fire in Dixie National Forest

From Hurricane Ida to the West’s wildfires, the US faced 20 “billion dollars” disasters last year that killed nearly 700 people. The full amount of damages rang up to $145 billion. Experts say extreme weather events will not slow down anytime soon. Over the past 40 years, the country’s disasters have cost an annual average of $7.7 billion, and in just the past five years, the average number of events is 18.

Historically, most disasters occur during the summer months in the form of hurricanes, droughts, rainstorms, and wildfires -- and human-caused climate change is intensifying approximately 71% of them. In the summary of an NOAA report, climate expert Adam Smith stated:

[Climate change is] supercharging the increasing frequency and intensity of certain types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters -- most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons in the Western states, and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall becoming more common in the eastern states. Sea level rise is worsening storm surge flooding.

Why This Matters

It does not matter where US climate disasters strike -- its effects will reverberate and be felt throughout the country. A recent analysis backs the reasonable assertion that those most vulnerable, socially and economically, are the ones facing the brunt of damages. Communities across the US simply lack the resources to rebuild after compounding disasters strike, and governmental assistance is often minimal.

Though $500 million in annual funding is allocated to FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program, which provides aid to at-risk communities, the funds are difficult to access. Underinsured, vulnerable homeowners in places like Smithfield, VA or Kotlik, AK are stuck in flood-prone residences after being repeatedly denied FEMA buyouts.

For communities that can obtain funding, the money just isn’t enough. The small town of Cruso, NC, has received millions and millions in federal aid to help homeowners, renters, and businesses rebuild following Tropical Storm Fred. Nearly a year later, the consequences of flooding remain.

“We’ve got some real social vulnerability issues we need to tackle,” former FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long told the Washington Post. “You’ve got a lack of insurance within the citizenry, a lack of insurance within our communities for public infrastructure… Until that changes, these disasters are going to get worse, and FEMA faces an impossible task.

Rising Waters

Coastal areas face unique risks, with the worst predicted for those along the Northeast and Southeast Atlantic and Western and Eastern Gulf. According to a recent NOAA analysis, over the next 30 years, the US coastline can expect to see an average of 2 inches of sea level rise (the equivalent to sea level rise over the past 100 years), with some areas experiencing rise up to a foot.

With sea level rise comes the frequency and severity of high-tide flooding, placing already vulnerable infrastructure and communities at even higher levels of risk. This year, the US may not experience record-breaking flooding due to La Niña, but by 2050, major and moderate high-tide flood events are expected to occur as often as moderate and minor ones do today.

The US is not alone in the rising waters. Severe flooding now puts nearly 25% of the world’s population at risk, and only 15.5% of the world’s coastal regions have remained unscathed.