Irene to Be One of the Costliest Storms in US History


Satellite Photo: NASA

So Irene didn't kill me (though, for just a second, I thought it might). As I watched the tepid rainfall out the window of my Brooklyn apartment last Sunday, I thought exactly what millions of other New Yorkers were thinking: Is this it? It was a major relief, of course, for anyone who'd feared the worst. But though Irene spared New York City, it's extremely important to recognize that some of those worst-case scenarios came true, and severe flooding ravaged communities upstate and in Vermont. And tragedy befell North Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey. Philadelphia was swamped with historic flooding. Millions were without power for days. Irene was indeed a capital 'D' disaster.

All told, in fact, the storm has been estimated to have claimed 42 lives and caused up to $10 billion in damage. And, of course, it's a harbinger of disasters to come. Here's Slate parsing at New York Times report on the damage estimates from Irene:

industry estimates put the cost of the storm between $7 billion and $10 billion, a total that would earn it a spot in the top 10 most expensive U.S. catastrophes on record. "Beyond deadly flooding that caused havoc in upstate New York and Vermont, the hurricane flooded cotton and tobacco crops in North Carolina, temporarily halted shellfish harvesting in Chesapeake Bay, sapped power and kept commuters from their jobs in the New York metropolitan area and pushed tourists off Atlantic beaches in the peak of summer," the paper reports.
Some 13 Vermont towns have been cut off from the mainland by flooding, though four-wheel drive vehicles have been able to get through to most in order to deliver supplies. Thousands of people are still without power. Bridges were destroyed, homes obliterated, infrastructure damaged beyond repair. It's not difficult to see how a multi-billion dollar tab was wracked up after the storm swept through so many Northeastern states.

Of course, as manmade climate change continues to cause the oceans to warm, conditions will be such that the East Coast may be threatened with even more powerful hurricanes in the future. Certainly there will be more record-breaking deluges: Warmer air holds more moisture, so wet regions get even wetter. In other words, the lush Northeast is going to have to start grappling with the fact that such flooding is likely to only get worse from here on out.

So let's be sure to make an honest appraisal of the often tragic damage inflicted by this storm, especially if you were one of the millions who was spared its wrath. And don't rest too easy; remember, such extreme weather is part of the 'new normal'.

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