Hurricane Laura struck the Louisiana and Texas border early August 27 with sustained winds of up to 75 miles per hour. Wildfires continue in California, covering over 1.3 million acres of land. Natural disasters are dangerous, but they are also expensive — leaving damaged homes, businesses, and communities in their wake. The total estimated cost of major disasters in the past 40 years would be enough to fund Social Security for about a year and a half or replace individual income taxes for a year. This current disaster season is part of a larger upward trend, suggesting that natural disasters are increasing in both frequency and price tag.
As of July 8, 2020, there have been 273 disasters since 1980 that have each cost the US $1 billion or more in damages, spending, and lost economic productivity, according to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Tropical cyclones, which include hurricanes and typhoons, are by far the costliest kind of these major disasters. Cyclones have totaled $954.4 billion in damages since 1980, averaging $21.2 billion per event.
Severe storms, which are less destructive but more frequent, accounted for $268.4 billion in expenses during the same period — the second highest total after tropical cyclones. Even though each major storm cost an average of only $2.1 billion, there have been 125 such storms over the past 40 years. The US is facing unusually high rates of storm damage so far this year, with 10 storms racking up $17.6 billion in costs in six months. These included tornadoes, severe weather, and hail in the southern, central, and eastern United States.
The three states hardest hit financially are Texas, Florida, and Louisiana, which have suffered $286 billion, $226.3 billion, and $183.6 billion in damages since 1980, respectively. But just behind them is Puerto Rico — a US territory 50 times smaller than Texas — which has lost $101.5 billion to natural disasters in the same period.
Of course, different kinds of natural disasters strike in different places. Wildfires over the last 40 years have cost California a total of $63.8 billion, compared to $21.9 billion across the rest of the nation. For reference, the state of California budgeted $60.1 billion for K-12 education this past year. Meanwhile, tropical cyclones have caused most of the natural disaster damage in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. In Puerto Rico, tropical cyclones caused all $101.5 billion of recorded damage.
NOAA only tracks disasters that cause at least $1 billion in damages. That said, the number of these billion-dollar disasters recorded each year continues to grow. There has not been a single year since 2002 where the number of major natural disasters fell below five. Since 2015, there have been at least 10 major disasters recorded each year.
While the total annual cost of natural disasters varies widely, there have been several record-breaking years in the past two decades. One spike occurred in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck Florida and the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. Another came in 2017, when three hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, and Maria — landed between late August and early September in Texas, Florida, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. According to NOAA, natural disasters between 2010 and 2019 accounted for 45.1% of total disaster costs since 1980, and those between 2017 and 2019 accounted for 25.7% — or $460.4 billion. That is about double the annual value of corporate income taxes and would cover half the federal deficit accrued last year.
Amid a pandemic and an economic downturn, and with climate policy on the ticket for the November election, the increasing costs of natural disasters could factor into how Americans vote. Read more coverage from USAFacts about wildfires, the state of the climate, and elections.
From NOAA: “In performing these disaster cost assessments these statistics were taken from a wide variety of sources and represent, to the best of our ability, the estimated total costs of these events — that is, the costs in terms of dollars that would not have been incurred had the event not taken place. Insured and uninsured losses are included in damage estimates. Sources include the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Interagency Fire Center, U.S. Army Corps, individual state emergency management agencies, state and regional climate centers, media reports, and insurance industry estimates.”
Listed among considered costs are: Physical damage to residential, commercial, and government or municipal buildings; material assets within a building; time element losses like business interruption; vehicles and boats; offshore energy platforms; public infrastructure like roads, bridges, and buildings; agricultural assets like crops, livestock, and timber; disaster restoration and wildfire suppression costs.
All costs are adjusted for inflation by NOAA using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
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