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Behind a billion-dollar disaster

My World's on Fire
Behind a billion-dollar disaster
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #64 • View online
Thanks for reading My World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, go ahead and subscribe for free!

Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) released a tally of this year’s billion-dollar disasters so far. This is a statistic that often gets cited in articles, so I wanted to use this week’s newsletter to help you make sense of those numbers—even if it meant sending it a day late!
Let’s start with the news: at this point in 2021, 18 disasters in the United States have caused more than $1 billion in losses. This number takes into account what the agencies call “weather/climate” disasters, so think severe storms, flooding, wildfires, and other natural hazard-triggered events. For context, there has been an average of about 7 billion-dollar disasters in a given year since 1980—though, if you just consider the past five years, that average spikes to about 16 (and yes, all of this takes into account changing costs over time). 
Not only is 2021 above those averages, it’s actually already trending higher than 2020, which was one of the top five most expensive disaster years in that same four-decade-plus timespan. In 2020, billion-dollar disasters cost the US just over $100 billion altogether. 2021 has already topped $104 billion, and that figure is admittedly incomplete. 
Now, let’s dig into what these numbers actually mean. Last year, Climate Central, an independent organization comprised of scientists and journalists dedicated to climate coverage, hosted a webinar about this method of categorizing and covering disasters. Adam Smith, NOAA lead scientist for this research, was one of the speakers, and he explained that the costs are compiled using a mix of federal and state statistics along with private sector insurance claims. The goal, he said, is to account for “direct total losses”—costs that would not have been incurred if not for the weather event. He also offered insight into what does not make the count, including loss of “natural capital,” resulting mental and physical healthcare expenses, and ripple effects on the supply chain. It also doesn’t factor in some of the smaller but significant costs that can be particularly difficult for those in the path of disasters, like paying for gas to evacuate or commute back-and-forth between your temporary shelter and disaster-damaged home.
In other words, these totals don’t take into account some major and ongoing costs. As other panelists pointed out, they quite likely also miss some expenses associated with often-overlooked frontline communities (this recent Los Angeles Times investigation offers an example of how serious this underreporting can be in the case of heat deaths). So, that $104 billion can really be looked at as a starting point for considering the toll of some of this year’s most impactful disasters.
Still, the number does help paint a picture of the strain on our disaster services and resources. Climate Central analyzed the amount of time between these particularly large, costly disasters, finding that there are now on average just 18 days between these events happening somewhere in the US.
For comparison, in the 1980s, it was 82 days. In the 2010s, it was 26. 
Graphic courtesy of Climate Central
Graphic courtesy of Climate Central
Climate change is one of the contributing factors in this shift, making certain types of extreme weather both more frequent and intense, as is human action, which shapes the landscapes that experience this weather. I’ve written before about windows of recovery in relation to my reporting in Louisiana, looking at one community that was hit by a series of compounding disasters just months apart. But, as Climate Central notes, it’s not just about one area being hit repeatedly—even if disasters are happening on opposite coasts, they are often ultimately drawing on the same limited pool of financial, human, and material resources, including first-responders, experts, supplies, and volunteer aid.
So, when you see these numbers in reporting, I hope this gives you a way to understand how they fit into this broader conversation of the impact disasters are having, particularly since this is the language that you’re most likely to hear from politicians and others in positions of power. And if this raised any questions, send them over!
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As always...
thank you for reading and subscribing to My World’s on Fire. This newsletter is helping people all around the world better understand “these uncertain times” because of readers like you who put forward a few dollars each month on Patreon.
It also means the world to me when you post about it on social media like Jacob Remes did:
Jacob Remes
In @colleenhagerty’s newsletter this weeks, she talks to organizers from communities on the frontline of climate disaster. Worth the quick read. https://t.co/ug7CXEsVKc
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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Colleen Hagerty

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