By Brian K. Sullivan
BOSTON – Hurricane Irene, tornadoes as well as flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers contributed to a record number of U.S. weather-related disasters costing at least $1 billion this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A total of 12 natural calamities killed 646 people and caused about $52 billion in damages, exceeding the previous all-time high of nine disasters in 2008, NOAA reported today.
“We know the frequency of billion-dollar weather disasters is increasing since 1980,” Tom Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said by telephone. “Cleary a big factor this year was tornado outbreaks and severe local weather.”
Six of the worst disasters, killing 548 and causing $19.7 billion in insured losses, came from tornadoes striking 23 states in April through June. Based on records back to 1910, there has been a rise in weather-related disasters since 1970.
Social and climate factors account for part of the increase, said Karl. The population has grown since 1980, people have a greater awareness about insuring their property and have more expensive possessions, all of which increase monetary damage figures, he said.
On the climate side, warmer global temperatures mean there is more water vapor in the air, which leads to higher rainfalls that cause more flooding, he said.
It also means overnight minimum temperatures are higher exacerbating the impact of drought, wildfires and heat waves, Adam Smith, an applied climatologist at the climatic center in Asheville, N.C., said by phone.
Wildfires in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico destroyed almost 3.7 million acres of land in the three states, killed five and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Drought and heat waves struck hard in at least six states and in Texas and Oklahoma are blamed with losses of $10 billion in crops, livestock and timber, according to NOAA.
Smith said the damage statistics are complied from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Munich Reinsurance, as well as state and local governments.
Also making NOAA’s list of the costliest disasters was Hurricane Irene that struck in August, killing at least 45 and causing more than $7.3 billion in damage in nine states, including New York and New Jersey.
A blizzard in Chicago caused $1 billion in insured losses and killed 36 while major floods on the Missouri and Souris rivers and on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers caused at least $4 billion in damage and killed 12.