Irene Is the 10th Billion-Dollar Weather Disaster for 2011

, Policy Director and Lead Economist, Climate & Energy | August 29, 2011, 2:28 pm EDT
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Many of us along the Eastern seaboard spent the weekend hunkered down, riding out hurricane Irene. My family and I were lucky to escape with nothing worse than a bad case of cabin fever. But that was sadly not the case for many, many people who faced severe flooding, power cuts, damage from fallen trees and even death in some cases.

Hurricane Irene makes landfall in North Carolina. Photo: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Final cost estimates of the damages from hurricane Irene are not yet in but they are guaranteed to cross the billion dollar mark. (Preliminary estimates put the costs of Irene at $7 billion though these figures could rise.) This would make Irene the 10thbillion dollar weather disaster the U.S. has experienced in 2011, and it’s not even September!

For 2011, so far, the list of disasters includes the severe flooding experienced in the Upper Midwest (losses greater than $5 billion) and along the Mississippi river this spring (losses of $2 to 4 billion), as well as the drought, heat waves and wildfires experienced in the Southwest this summer (costs over $5 billion to date).

The National Climatic Data Center at NOAA has compiled a full list of billion dollar weather disasters from 1980-2010, with a preliminary list for 2011, here:

While one cannot make an explicit link with climate change and any one event, a number of these kinds of weather events could likely get more frequent or more intense due to climate change.

Why Irene is so costly

Irene’s costs are primarily attributable to our current pattern of rapid coastal development, which is putting more people and more valuable property and infrastructure in harm’s way in the event of such storms. Over half of the American population lives in coastal areas and the value of insured coastal property in 18 Gulf and East coast states totaled $8.9 trillion in 2007. The value of these coastal insured properties grew at a compound annual rate of just over 7 percent per year between 2004 and 2007. Two states — Florida and New York — have over two trillion dollars each in the insured value of residential and commercial properties in coastal counties. In a warming world, perhaps we should re-think the risks of continuing down this path.

Costs of disaster preparedness

And while some of the more extreme predictions of Hurricane Irene’s impacts may not have transpired, local, state and federal governments still had to take the responsible course of action to prepare for them. These large costs of emergency preparedness – mass evacuations, shutting down of major transportation links, stockpiling emergency supplies etc. – could likely be a growing reality of our future. Businesses, especially insurance companies, are also likely to face escalating costs. And on the front lines are the exposed and vulnerable populations, especially those who may lack the resources to evacuate from disaster zones or rebuild their lives in the aftermath.

What this means for our future

This is certainly a wake-up call to get serious about our efforts to curtail our global warming emissions. But, sadly, it’s also a clear sign that we have to invest much more in efforts to mitigate and prepare for the risks we face in a warming world – including nearer-term risks that we’re locked into because of the warming already underway due to our past emissions.

Extreme weather is likely the “new normal”, as some scientists have said, and it’s a very costly new normal.

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