Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Harvey. Four of the five most costly natural disasters in our nation’s history have occurred during the past ten years*. This is part of a larger pattern of the increasing frequency and impact of natural disasters.
How has the government’s response to natural disasters changed? What is the impact of different types of disasters?
Prior to the 1970s, there was no formal federal support for natural disasters. That changed after a wave of natural disasters in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1974, President Nixon passed the Disaster Relief Act , establishing the practice of Presidential disaster designations. In 1979, President Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate emergency response efforts and national disaster preparedness planning.
The impact of disasters can be evaluated by a number of measures. Let’s look at frequency, cost, and the loss of human life.
FEMA tracks natural disasters over time. An analysis of the data shows that while the number of declared natural disasters was relatively low in the 1980s and 1990s, following the creation of the agency, the number of declared natural disasters has recently increased. Declarations increased from 31 in 1980 to 124 in 2018, a 300% increase.
Not all natural events resulting in damage receive a declaration. What determines whether or not a declaration is made and how consistent is the declaration process?
The federal government has been making disaster declarations and providing support through FEMA funding since the 1970s. The decision to declare something an official disaster, and grant financial assistance to local governments, rests solely with the President. However, FEMA assesses the severity of the damage and the state’s ability to pay, and makes a recommendation to the President.
In addition, Congress reviews the process and makes legislative adjustments from time to time. For example, the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Improvement Act directed FEMA to update criteria used to make a recommendation to the President for an Individual Assistance declaration.
A 2014 Congressional Research Service report concludes that while the disaster declaration process has “changed very little over time,” it can be influenced by state’s understanding of how to craft a successful request, the presence of other funding or lack thereof, and the national narrative.
Each disaster is unique and the amount of damage caused varies widely. While FEMA does not publish complete spending per disaster, another agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tracks the economic impact of costly disasters. These so-called “billion-dollar disasters” have been increasing in frequency and cost. Fourteen disasters caused more than $1 billion in damages in 2018, compared to 3 in 1980, after adjusting for inflation.
The deadliest disasters in recent history have been Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria. Aside from these two events, the yearly number of deaths due to natural disasters has remained steady at less than 1,000 deaths per year.
As noted above, hurricanes are the deadliest natural disasters. The most dangerous in recent history were Hurricane Maria in 2017, with 2,981 reported deaths, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with 1,833 reported deaths.
Hurricanes are also costly. Adjusting for inflation, 7 of the 10 most expensive natural disasters have been hurricanes. Of those 7, 6 have happened since 2000.
In the 1960s, the government began protecting the largest investments of Americans, their homes, from disaster.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was created in 1968 to offer government insurance for homeowners with homes at risk of flooding. Beginning with 2 million policies in 1980, the program grew to 5 million covered homes by 2005. The number of covered homes has declined in recent years, from a high of 5,700,235 in 2009 to 5,133,785 in 2017.
While droughts do not have the same immediacy of impact as other disaster types, the economic damage can be significant. Low rainfall affects harvests and reduces crop production.
The US drought of 1988 led to the lowest crop harvest in the past 40 years. The 2012 drought affected more than 50% of the land area in the US, directly causing 123 deaths and resulting in $33 billion in economic damages. Crops like corn, soybeans, and sorghum experienced widespread failure.
Wildfires can be both part of the natural forest lifecycle and unexpected disasters as a result of human actions. Sometimes, they grow large enough to be declared natural disasters. While they are not the most deadly or costly, fires are the most frequent disaster affecting the United States.
In response to the large California wildfires of 2017 and 2018, caused by equipment from the utility company PG&E, the state of California created an insurance fund for utility providers. At the federal level, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 signed by President Trump included expanded support for wildfire recovery.
The frequency and cost of declared natural disasters is increasing. The natural disasters with the most impact when assessing frequency, cost, and loss of life are hurricanes, floods, fires, and droughts.
Since the 1970s, the federal government has formalized planning and aid for natural disasters. Learn more about natural disaster spending by exploring data on before and after disaster spending.
*All financial figures have been adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
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