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Breaking down a billion-dollar disaster

My World's on Fire
Breaking down a billion-dollar disaster
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #113 • View online
Welcome to My World’s on Fire, a newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you’re seeing this newsletter for the first time, let’s make this a regular thing—subscribe to receive disaster deep-dives, Q&As, and context in your inbox on Thursday evenings.

Earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shared the latest tally of billion-dollar disasters for the year 2022. It’s a statistic that politicians and news articles often cite, so I took some time last year to put it in context, including breaking down what it does—and does not—tell us about the impacts of extreme weather-related disasters. Since a number of you have become subscribers since then, I thought I’d share that reporting with you again this week, updated to include the most recent figures.
Let’s start with the news: as of the end of September, 15 “weather and climate” disasters in the United States have individually incurred more than $1 billion in losses (per NOAA, “weather and climate” disasters refer to natural hazard-triggered events like severe storms, flooding, and extreme heat). This includes recent wildfires in the west, Hurricane Fiona, and Hurricane Ian, though the agency says the official assessments for those three events are still ongoing. So, while the current estimate of property and infrastructure damage due to disasters this year is $29.3 billion, that is subject to significantly change as those figures come in.
Graphic courtesy of NOAA
Graphic courtesy of NOAA
Now, what actually makes up that billion-dollar sum? According to a workshop Climate Central hosted with Adam Smith, lead scientist for NOAA’s US Billion-dollar Weather and Climate Disasters research, the costs are compiled using a mix of federal and state statistics, plus private-sector insurance claims. The goal, he said, is to account for “direct total losses,” or costs that would not have been incurred if not for the weather event. 
Smith 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 crucial costs that can be particularly difficult for those in the path of disasters, like paying for gas to evacuate or a temporary place to stay. As other panelists in the workshop pointed out, the estimates quite likely also miss some expenses in often-overlooked frontline communities. For example, those who live in mobile homes are often excluded from government tallies and have historically been left out of some disaster relief programs. 
Still, the number does help paint a picture of the strain on our disaster services and resources, and it provides a benchmark to look at over time. NOAA has been tracking billion-dollar disasters since 1980, with the total tally currently at 338 (cost-adjusted over time). Overall, there has been an average of seven of these disasters per year, but there has been a notable uptick recently: 2022 is the record eighth-consecutive year that NOAA has clocked ten or more billion-dollar disasters.
Climate Central analyzed the amount of time between these particularly large, costly disasters, finding that the average number of days from one to the next went from 82 in the 1980s to 26 in the 2010s. In the past five years, that average has further shrunk to 18 days between billion-dollar disasters. 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 the importance of these windows between disasters when reporting on a Louisiana community that was hit by a series of compounding disasters just months apart and the challenge of fitting wildfire mitigation practices into these increasingly short spans in California.
Graphic courtesy of Climate Central
Graphic courtesy of Climate Central
So, when you see this billion-dollar statistic making the rounds, I hope this helps you understand how that figure fits into this broader conversation. And if this raised any questions, send them over—you can always reach me by responding to this email.
The next edition of Demystifying Disasters...
will be about evacuations! If you have questions, personal experience, or professional expertise about this topic and are open to sharing, please respond to this email.
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