USA 2011: Most catastrophic weather year on record!

Here’s a record nobody wanted to break.

Hurricane Irene was the 10th “billion dollar weather disaster” to hit the USA in 2011. That’s the highest number of billion dollar weather disasters to hit the USA since such records were kept starting in 1980.

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According to the National Climatic Data Center, (NCDC) 2011 through May was the costliest year since they began tracking billion dollar disasters in 1980. Economic damage costs to date in the US exceed $35 Billion. This damage amount does not yet take into account the losses from Hurricane Irene.

(Estimates for Irene run as high as 7 billion.)

Here is the preliminary summary of the 10 U.S. Billion dollar disasters that have occurred so far in 2011: (NCDC data)

Hurricane Irene, August 20-29, 2011 While it will take several months to determine an accurate estimate of the damage from Hurricane Irene, there is no question it will rank as the 10th billion-dollar weather/climate event of the year. This 10th U.S. billion-dollar disaster officially breaks the annual record dating back to 1980.

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Irene was battering eastern North Carolina shortly before noon on August 27, 2011, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite took this picture.

Upper Midwest Flooding, Summer, 2011 Melting of an above-average snow pack across the Northern Rocky Mountains combined with above-average precipitation caused the Missouri and Souris Rivers to swell beyond their banks across the Upper Midwest (MT, ND, SD, NE, IA, KS, MO). An estimated 11,000 people were forced to evacuate Minot, North Dakota due to the record high water level of the Souris River, where 4,000 homes were flooded. Numerous levees were breached along the Missouri River, flooding thousands of acres of farmland. Estimated losses exceed $2.0 billion as the event continues to unfold (as of 8/15). The flooding also stretched into the Canadian Prairies, where property and agriculture losses were expected to surpass $1.0 billion, at least 5 deaths.

Mississippi River flooding, Spring-Summer, 2011 Persistent rainfall (nearly 300 percent normal precipitation amounts in the Ohio Valley) combined with melting snowpack caused historical flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Estimated economic loss ranges from $2.0-4.0 billion; at least 2 deaths. Below are more detailed stats, which are preliminary, as the event continues to unfold (as of 8/15): $500 million to agriculture in Arkansas; $320 million in damage to Memphis, Tennessee; $800 million to agriculture in Mississippi; $317 million to agriculture and property in Missouri’s Birds Point-New Madrid Spillway; $80 million for the first 30 days of flood fighting efforts in Louisiana.

Southern Plains/Southwest Drought, Heatwave, & Wildfires, Spring-Summer, 2011 Drought, heatwave, and wildfires have created major impacts across the Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, southern Kansas, and western Arkansas and Louisiana. In Texas and Oklahoma, respectively, 75% and 63% of range and pasture conditions were classified in ‘very poor’ condition as of mid-August. Wildfire fighting/suppression costs for the region are also ~$1 million / day with over 2,000 homes and structures lost. The total direct losses (as of August 15) to agriculture, cattle and structures are well over $5.0 billion; both direct and total economic losses will rise dramatically as the event continues.

Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes, May 22-27, 2011 Outbreak of tornadoes over central and southern states (MO, TX, OK, KS, AR, GA, TN, VA, KY, IN, IL, OH, WI, MN, PA) with an estimated 180 tornadoes and 177 deaths. Notably, an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, MO resulting in at least 141 deaths, making it the deadliest single tornado to strike the U.S. since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950. Over $4.9 billion insured losses for event; total losses greater than $7.0 billion; 177 deaths.

Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest Tornadoes, April 25-30, 2011 Outbreak of tornadoes over central and southern states (AL, AR, LA, MS, GA, TN, VA, KY, IL, MO, OH, TX, OK) with an estimated 305 tornadoes and 327 deaths. Of those fatalities, 240 occurred in Alabama. The deadliest tornado of the outbreak, an EF-5, hit northern Alabama, killing 78 people. Several major metropolitan areas were directly impacted by strong tornadoes including Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Huntsville in Alabama and Chattanooga, Tennessee, causing the estimated damage costs to soar. Over $6.6 billion insured losses; total losses greater than $9.0 billion; 327 deaths.

Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes, April 14-16, 2011 Outbreak of tornadoes over central and southern states (OK, TX, AR, MS, AL, GA, NC, SC, VA, PA) with an estimated 160 tornadoes. Despite the large overall number of tornadoes, few were classified as intense, with just 14 EF-3, and no EF-4 or EF-5 tornadoes identified. Over $1.4 billion insured losses; total losses greater than $2.0 billion; 38 deaths [22 of which were in North Carolina].

Southeast/Midwest Tornadoes, April 8-11, 2011 Outbreak of tornadoes over central and southern states (NC, SC, TN, AL, TX, OK, KS, IA, WI) with an estimated 59 tornadoes. Over $1.5 billion insured losses; total losses greater than $2.2 billion; numerous injuries, 0 deaths.

Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes, April 4-5, 2011 Outbreak of tornadoes over central and southern states (KS, MO, IA, IL, WI, KY, GA, TN, NC, SC) with an estimated 46 tornadoes. Over $1.6 billion insured losses; total losses greater than $2.3 billion; 9 deaths.

Groundhog Day Blizzard, Jan 29-Feb 3, 2011 Large winter storm impacting many central, eastern and northeastern states. The city of Chicago was brought to a virtual standstill as between 1 and 2 feet of snow fell over the area. Insured losses greater than $1.1 billion; total losses greater than $2.0 billion; 36 deaths.

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“The U.S. has sustained 109 weather/climate related disasters over the past 31+ years in which overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total standardized losses for the 109 events exceed $750 billion. Events are listed below beginning with the most recent. Two damage figures are given for events prior to 2011 – the first figure represents actual dollar costs at the time of the event and is not adjusted for inflation. The value in parenthesis is the disaster cost adjusted to 2011 dollars using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

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 and lives that would not have been incurred had the event not taken place. Insured and uninsured losses are included in damage estimates. These estimates are likely to change as damage assessments become more complete.

Estimates are periodically updated as more data/information become available. Sources include the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, US Department of Agriculture, other U.S. government agencies, individual state emergency management agencies, state and regional climate centers, media reports, and insurance industry estimates.”

So where are you most likely to run into a “billion dollar weather disaster?” As you might expect, the southeast (hurricanes) and tornado alley are the most likely places in the USA. Yet another reason to appreciate living in Minnesota?

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Bottom Line: By the measure of billion dollar disasters, this has been the most “extreme weather year” in the USA since at least 1980.

Climate change link?

Even though the trends are striking, we may never be 100% certain that climate change is playing a role in the increasing number of billion dollar disasters.

While many politicians refuse to acknowledge the trends, it appears the insurance industry isn’t taking any chances. The story from Bloomberg.

Market, Politicians Going Separate Ways on Climate Change: View

“Hurricane Irene’s residue is likely to include a confusing debate over whether insurers or property owners are responsible for storm-caused water damage. There’s no lack of clarity, however, over whether the insurance industry believes in climate change and its ties to lethal weather: It does.

As Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Sept. 5 issue, the industry has absorbed many lessons from Sept. 11 about anticipating risk. One is that the recent spate of weather extremes is likely to continue — and the insurance market must reflect that.

Interestingly, this puts the industry at odds with a number of Republican candidates who have made questioning climate change a not-insignificant part of their campaign strategy. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann dispute whether global warming is man-made. Perry suggests that climate is affected by many variables, which scientists can manipulate “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Mitt Romney is on the fence. Only Jon Huntsman Jr. has declared definitively that he trusts scientists on global warming.

Politicians have been known to dissemble about risk because voters generally don’t like to hear bad news. The insurance industry makes its money telling it to you straight — how long you’ll probably live, what price your home will fetch, whether to repair or trade in your car.

Risk Models

For this reason, it’s worth noting that insurers already factor climate change into their models for measuring, pricing and distributing risk. Insurers have no incentive to lie. If they are more scared than they should be in pricing risk, shareholders will punish them. If they aren’t scared enough, nature will do the job.

No one can say for certain that any single weather event flows from the warmer air caused by carbon emissions, which in turn lead to more rainfall, floods and snowfall over some parts of the planet, and more drought in other parts. But last year was the hottest on record. Arctic ice is at record low levels. Regardless of what politicians say, insurers must factor all this into premiums.

Vulnerable Areas

Swiss Re, the second-largest reinsurer, is developing scenarios using probabilistic modeling to help government officials cope. The reinsurer studied the effects of climate change in vulnerable areas such as Samoa, Mali, Caribbean islands and Miami.

No matter which model it chose — no change, moderate changes or extreme changes — Swiss Re concludes it’s cheaper to adapt now than to sit and wait.

It recommends building codes that require more water- and wind-proofing, zoning laws that prevent planting trees close to buildings and power lines, redesigned beaches that absorb storm surge, and restoration of wetlands.

Hurricane Irene, and the estimated $5 billion to $7 billion in damage claims insurers now face, has been swept up in this debate. Irene maintained hurricane strength farther north than storms usually do — and dropped extraordinary amounts of rain. At the same time, parts of the U.S. are experiencing record-high temperatures and dust-bowl conditions. Houston hit an all-time high of 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) the same day Irene was roaring up the Eastern Seaboard.

Rising Seas

A storm with Irene’s fury will only cause more damage in the future. Rising sea levels will allow storm surge to penetrate farther inland. Americans pushing relentlessly toward the East and West Coasts are putting themselves and their property in harm’s way.

If elected officials want to help constituents prepare for disaster, they could fight for legislation to curb carbon emissions, and they could keep people from building along coastlines. Politicians have enjoyed enormous success calling scientists into question. The market may not prove to be such an easy target.”

If money and markets are leading indicators, politicians may be behind the times on the economic impacts of climate change.


  • If money and markets are leading indicators, politicians may be behind the times on the economic impacts of climate change.

    Yes. This.

  • michael

    Correction: despite the claim given after the first graph, the NCDC graph does NOT show that 2011 is the costliest year for weather/climate disasters. It only shows that 2011 already has the greatest number of billion dollar disasters.

  • Paul Huttner

    Good point michael….2011 was the costliest through May of this year, but not overall.

    Correction made. Thanks.


  • Dibble1dobble

    Judging by the map, the south and east of the US looks the most dangerous place to live. The safest? probably around Connecticut.

  • Chris

    Actually, according the History Channel ‘How the States Got There Shape’, the safest place is Hawaii. The south and east have the highest dollar losses because that’s where most of the high value real estate is by density. It’s hard for Mother Nature to miss something anyplace from DC to Boston or along the coasts. It’s hard to hit anything in most of MN relatively speaking.