Billion-Dollar Disasters of 2019

Weather Headlines

Failing levies and flooded farms from Iowa to Arkansas. Near-unprecedented wind and rain from Hurricane Dorian and Tropical Storm Imelda. Millions of power outages and evacuations related to the Kincade Fire, Getty Fire, and hundreds of other large blazes across the West. Just like 2018 and 2017, this year has been full of devastating extreme weather events—which are getting more costly as the climate warms. 

Through September, the U.S. has experienced 10 weather and climate disasters that have cost more than $1 billion (according to the latest quarterly report from NOAA NCEI). None of these 10 are cold weather-related; all are tied to extreme flooding or storms. When the year’s final numbers are released in January, other events could exceed the billion-dollar threshold—particularly the Western fires. Though NOAA typically treats regional wildfires as one annual event, their total cost has skyrocketed as fire seasons lengthen. In the past two years, Western wildfires have cost the U.S. more than $40 billion—shattering previous records of $6 billion per year. 

This year’s numbers fit with recent increases in disaster frequency and cost, even after adjusting for inflation. For instance:

  • The past five years have each had at least ten separate billion-dollar disasters—the longest such streak since record-keeping began in 1980.
  • Since 1980, these events have cost more than $1.7 trillion (inflation-adjusted), including $450 billion in 2016-2018.
  • The South/Central and Southeast have suffered more disasters than other U.S. regions, with more than 100 in Texas. 

Climate change intensifies many of these disasters. Warmer oceans are fueling the rapid intensification of hurricanes, while a warmer and wetter atmosphere intensifies their rainfall. Stronger downpours worsen inland flooding and crop damage; coastal flooding is heightened by sea level rise. And in the West, heat and drought have doubled the cumulative forest fire area burned since 1984. While winds and forest management play a role, climate change affects the base conditions from which these fires develop.

Each state can reduce costs with climate adaptation measures, such as restoring coastal marshes, increasing the flood-preparedness of homes, and doing prescribed burns (when possible) in wildfire-prone areas. But as climate change outpaces our planning, we must reduce our carbon emissions as quickly as possible. 

METHODOLOGY: Data source: NOAA NCEI U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (1980 through October 8, 2019). The cost has been adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The methodology developed by NOAA NCEI, with input from economic experts and consultants to remove biases, can be found at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/overview. Additional review of the methodology can be found in Smith and Katz, 2013. 

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