Last year, the US suffered an astounding $306 billion in damage, shattering all records to date.
2017 was definitely one for the books. If you felt like natural disasters in the United States were descending with unusual fury, you were correct. In fact, according to a new report by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the most expensive year on record for natural disasters in the country. From the parade of hurricanes and hailstorms to freezes and fires, the succession of calamities came with a price tag of $306 billion in damage.
The year saw 16 natural disasters that caused more than $1 billion of damage. As Kendra Pierre-Louis reports for The New York Times, “In 1980, when NOAA first started tallying records, there were only three such disasters, adjusted for inflation,” notes Pierre-Louis. “This year’s $306 billion in damage broke a record set in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina contributed to a total of $215 billion in damage, also adjusted for inflation.”
And of course even more tragic than the amount of money is the number of deaths; NOAA counts 362 human deaths (not sure how the Puerto Rico numbers fit into that) and countless injuries.
Is climate change to blame? Much of the weather’s behavior fell in line with predictions of what to expect with a warming planet, though as Pierre-Louis points out, “scientists cannot always say with certainty how a given natural disaster was influenced by climate change.” Given that last year was the country's third-warmest year in 123 years of record-keeping – with a temperature average 2.6 F degrees above the average year during the 20th century – well, it doesn’t look very good.
Below are the disasters with the unfortunate distinction of causing at least $1 billion in damage, according to the NOAA report.
Southeast freeze, March: $1 billion, 0 deaths
While freezes in March across the southeastern states are not that unusual, many of the crops were blooming more than three weeks ahead of schedule thanks to unusually warm temperatures, resulting in heavily damaged fruit crops.
Southern tornado outbreak, January: $1.1 billion, 24 deaths
Southern California suffered high-wind damage, which was followed by 79 confirmed tornadoes across many southern states all the way to South Carolina. It was the third highest number of tornadoes to occur in a single outbreak during a winter month since 1950.
Midwest severe weather: Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa, June: $1.4 billion, 0 deaths
The three states suffered severe hail and high wind damage, with more than a dozen tornadoes touching down in Iowa alone.
Widespread midwest severe weather, June: $1.5 billion, 0 deaths
In a tremendous swatch of states from Iowa to Texas to New York, severe hail, high winds and numerous tornadoes tore across a large part of the country over the course of several days.
California flooding, February: $1.5 billion, 5 deaths
Following record-breaking drought, the rains came. And came and came and came. Heavy, persistent rainfall across northern and central California resulted in significant property and infrastructure damage from flooding, landslides and erosion, including severe damage to the Oroville Dam spillway.
Missouri and Arkansas flooding, May: $1.7 billion, 20 deaths
15 inches or heavy rainfall swamped a multi-state region in the Midwest, causing rivers to flood at historic levels. Missouri, Arkansas and southern Illinois were hit the hardest with breached levees.
Tornado outbreak in Central and Southeast states, March: $1.8 billion, 6 deaths
The second largest outbreak in early 2017, this one delivered 70 tornadoes across central and southern states causing significant damage, including widespread straight-line wind and hail damage.
Midwest tornado outbreak, March: $2.1 billion, 2 deaths
Happening a week before the first March outbreak, this spate of tornados and storms swept across the country from Arizona to New York. Missouri and Illinois were affected by numerous tornadoes while Michigan and New York were hit with destructive, straight-line winds behind the storm system.
Minnesota hailstorm, June: $2.4 billion, 0 deaths
Severe hail and high winds were to blame for significant damage across Minnesota and Wisconsin, especially the Minneapolis metropolitan area that suffered from large, destructive hail.
Drought in N. Dakota, S. Dakota and Montana, spring through autumn: $2.5 billion, 0 deaths
Extreme drought in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana had far-reaching impact; crops like wheat were severely damaged which led to hungry cattle and the subsequent need to sell off off livestock. The lack of water has also set the stage for the increased potential of severe wildfires.
Severe weather in the South and Southeast, March: $2.6 billion, 0 deaths
Large hail and high winds north of Dallas were responsible for widespread damage to buildings and vehicles; other states in the region also suffered from a mix of high winds, hail and tornadoes.
Colorado hailstorm, May: $3.4 billion, 0 deaths
Hellacious hail and wind damage ripped across a number of states, with Colorado faring especially poorly. Baseball-sized hail fell upon the Denver metropolitan area, making it the most expensive hail storm in Colorado history.
Western wildfires and California firestorm, autumn: $18 billion, 54 deaths
While southern states were being drenched in hurricanes, the west was on fire. An historic firestorm savaged over 15,000 homes, businesses and other structures in northern California in October, with the combined destruction of the Tubbs, Atlas, Nuns and Redwood Valley wildfires ringing in as the most costly wildfire event on record. In December, Los Angeles wildfires consumed hundreds of homes; while more fires raged across other western and northwestern states, totalling a mind-boggling 9.8 million acres consumed, easily topping the 10-year annual average of 6.5 million acres.
Hurricane Irma, September: $50 billion, 97 deaths
Category 4 Irma landed at Cudjoe Key, Florida after striking the U.S. Virgin Islands - St John and St Thomas - as a category 5 storm. Twenty-five percent of buildings were destroyed in the Florida Keys, with 65 percent suffering significant damage. Severe wind and storm surge affected other states as well. NOAA notes that Irma maintained a maximum sustained wind of 185 mph for 37 hours, the longest in the satellite era. Irma also was a category 5 storm for longer than all other Atlantic hurricanes except Ivan in 2004.
Hurricane Maria, September: $90 billion, 65 deaths
Puerto Rico took the brunt of the Category 4 Maria, which made landfall in the southeast part of the island after whalloping the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix. NOAA describes the wreckage: "Maria's high winds caused widespread devastation to Puerto Rico's transportation, agriculture, communication and energy infrastructure. Extreme rainfall up to 37 inches caused widespread flooding and mudslides across the island. The interruption to commerce and standard living conditions will be sustained for a long period, as much of Puerto Rico's infrastructure is rebuilt. Maria tied Hurricane Wilma (2005) for the most rapid intensification, strengthening from tropical depression to a category 5 storm in 54 hours. Maria's landfall at Category 4 strength gives the U.S. a record three Category 4+ landfalls this year (Maria, Harvey, and Irma)."
Hurricane Harvey, August: $125 billion, 89 deaths
With echoes of hurricane Katrina, the Category 4 Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas unleashing epic rainfall resulting in historic flooding across Houston and nearby environs. "More than 30 inches of rainfall fell on 6.9 million people, while 1.25 million experienced over 45 inches and 11,000 had over 50 inches, based on 7-day rainfall totals ending August 31," notes the report. Along with the 89 deaths, the flooding displaced over 30,000 people and damaged or destroyed over 200,000 homes and businesses.
You can see the whole report here: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2018).