In its first 10 months, 2011 has already set a new United States record for number of natural disasters that cost at least one billion dollars in property damage. 14 such events occurred in 2011, compared to 9 in the full year of 2008, the next highest year.
2011 saw natural disasters strike in many countries throughout the world. The
earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the earthquakes in Turkey, the drought in
China, and the famine in Africa all took a heavy toll in both lives lost and
property damage. A leading reinsurer reports worldwide economic loss from
natural disasters had already exceeded $265 billion as of the end of June, with
a half year still to go. That topped the losses for the entire year of 2005,
the highest loss year prior to 2011. Because final statistics for many of these
world disasters have not yet been published, this article will focus only on
the natural disasters that occurred in the United States during the first ten
months of 2011.
According to data recently published by the National Climatic Data Center, a division of NOAA, 14 natural disasters causing at least $1 billion each in property loss struck the U.S. between January and October of this year. The damage per event ranged from $1 billion plus for Tropical Storm Lee in September, to $26 billion for the destruction inflicted by the severe
thunderstorms and killer tornadoes that ravaged the southeast and Midwest in
April and May.
Loss of life, of course, is the most tragic part of any natural disaster. Tuscaloosa
and Joplin suffered especially hard losses. In the first 10 months of 2011, 675
deaths were attributed to natural disasters in the United States. It is hoped
that in coming years, lives will be saved by better disaster mitigation
planning. That would include strengthening building codes in disaster-prone
areas, and restricting building on land susceptible to natural disasters such
as flood plains and hillsides. Planning ahead to lower natural disaster losses
is a priority of several United Nations agencies.
Here are the 14 natural disasters totaling $56.3 billion from January to October, 2011:
Groundhog Day blizzard – February 2. Blizzard conditions with winds up to 60 mph (100kph) and freezing temperatures swept across a wide swath of the U.S. from Albuquerque to New York City. Chicago was especially hard hit with 2 ft (60cm) of snow in 24 hours, closing O’Hare Airport and nearly paralyzing the city. The storm caused 36 deaths, and storm damage was estimated at $3.9 billion.
Derecho wind storms – April 4 and 5. A series of 40 mph (70kph) wind storms
associated with a violent squall line moved the through the Midwest and onto
the east coast. These were called derecho winds, a term meaning high winds that blow steadily in one direction for prolonged periods. The same storm spawned tornadoes in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi. The death toll was 9. Damage costs were $2.5 billion.
Iowa windstorms and tornadoes – April 8 to 11. A powerful storm over the Midwest set off a series of tornadoes. The strongest of these was a huge ¾ mile (1.2km) wide funnel that struck Mapleton, Iowa, on April 9, leaving a 3.5 mile (6km) trail of total destruction. Luckily, no deaths were reported from this storm, but storm damage reached $2.25 billion.
Oklahoma to North Carolina tornadoes – April 14 to 16. A severe Midwest storm created a band of strong tornadoes that moved across 16 states from Oklahoma to the east coast. The area around Raleigh, North Carolina, was especially hard hit by a tornado with funnel speeds exceeding 165 mph (275kph). 45 people died in the chain of storms. Damages totaled $2 billion.
Ohio tornadoes – April 19 to 21. A heavy Midwest storm produced 61 tornadoes over a 3-day period. On April 20, a tornado ripped through the town of Oregon, Ohio, leaving heavy damage but no injuries or fatalities. Losses totaled $1 billion.
Super Tornado Outbreak– April 25 to 30. One of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history struck the southeastern states during this 6-day period. On April 27, 188 tornadoes touched down in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia, 5 of them rated EF5 with funnel wind speeds exceeding 200 mph (340kph). 343 people died, 239 of those in Alabama, where the university city of Tuscaloosa was especially hard hit. Damages totaled $9 billion.
Missouri & Oklahoma tornadoes – May 22 to 24. On May 22, a multiple vortex EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri with wind speeds peaking at 250 mph (400kph), killing 162 people and destroying a large part of southwest Joplin. Two days later, El Reno, Oklahoma was devastated by one of many tornados that hit the state. 8 people died and over 60 were injured. Damages from the two events: $8 billion.
Illinois severe winds – June 16-22. Strong thunderstorms and EF3 tornadoes hit the upper plains states. Near Chicago, the town of Wheeling, IL sustained heavy damage. No deaths were reported, but damage came to $1.25 billion.
Mississippi River flooding – April and May. Heavy rain from spring storms plus above-average snowmelt sent torrents of water into the Mississippi and its tributaries, causing massive flooding from Illinois to Louisiana. 1 death was attributed to the event. Damages to buildings, infrastructure, and cropland exceeded $5 billion.
Texas drought and wildfires – ongoing. Texas has been locked in a yearlong drought that has done great damage to agriculture, livestock, and the general economy. Wildfires burned 3 million acres across the state. 91% of the state has been declared in extreme or exceptional drought by the USDA. Damages so far total $5.2 billion.
Missouri River & Souris River floods – spring & summer. The Missouri River and its tributaries started cresting and overflowing their banks in June, causing bridge and highway closings, crop losses, and evacuations by thousands of people in 7 Upper Midwest states. The flooding persisted through much of the summer. In North Dakota, the Souris River crested at a hundred-year high in late June, flooding parts of Minot. 11,000 people had to be evacuated. Losses for both events came to $2 billion. 5 lives were lost.
Hurricane Irene – August 26 to 28.
Irene hit North Carolina on Aug. 27 with 85 mph (140kph) winds, moved off the coast, came ashore again in Long Island as a 65 mph (108kph) tropical storm. The storm dropped 8 to 12 inches (30cm) of rain, causing major flooding in several northeastern states. The storm took 46 lives. Wind and flood damage totaled $7.2 billion.
Tropical Storm Lee – September 4 to 8. Lee came ashore in Louisiana with a wind speed of 45 mph (75kph). Wind damage was minor, but this extremely wet storm dropped 10 inches (25cm) of rain on southeastern states. It moved north into Pennsylvania and Western New York where it rained nearly 8 inches (20cm) in 24 hours on ground already saturated by Hurricane Irene. The Susquehanna River rose 20 ft in 24 hours, flooding Binghamton, NY and several Pennsylvania cities. 13 people died. Damages exceeded $1 billion.
Northeast snow storm – October 29 & 30. During this 48-hour period, the biggest October snowstorm in 200 years swept through the northeastern states, with high winds and up to 2.6 feet (76cm) of snow. The freak blizzard knocked out power to 3 million households in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Thousands of homes were still without power weeks later. The storm resulted in 27 deaths and more than $3 billion in damage.
Can anything be done tomake natural disasters less destructive? Many places around the world are adopting natural disaster mitigation measures. For example, areas susceptible to heavy earthquake damage, such as Japan and California, have added stringent earthquake safety requirements to their building codes over the past 50 years. All new commercial structures, schools, roads, and bridges have been built to the new specifications, and billions of dollars have been spent retrofitting older schools, commercial buildings, bridges, and freeway overpasses. There are still casualties and property loss when a large earthquake strikes these areas, but the fatalities, injuries, and property damage have been greatly reduced over those that occurred in earlier quakes when unreinforced school and office buildings collapsed, killing and trapping thousands.
If the same principal of requiring safer building codes could be applied to areas that experience frequent hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and floods, many lives might be saved and property loss greatly reduced. A recent NOAA climate-change study indicates that future storms will last longer and be much more intense. That seems to make it more urgent than ever to prepare for natural disasters by building storm-resistant structures and building in the right places.