Updated Feb. 6 with final 2018 disaster data.
As Hurricane Michael quickly gained strength over unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, Tyndall Air Force Base began sending its stealth fighters to safer bases—all but the more than a dozen planes undergoing maintenance. Two days later, the base was being ripped apart by 155 mile-per-hour winds that left it littered with the twisted metal of torn-away rooftops and hangars.
The hurricane—one of 14 climate and weather disasters in the United States this year to top $1 billion in damage—left a wide trail of destruction through homes, businesses and farms from Florida to the Carolinas.
The military alone suffered several billion dollars in damage. During a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Dec. 12, Sen. Tim Kaine said the price tag for damage at Tyndall Air Force Base was about $5 billion, as he understood it. That added to earlier damage from Hurricane Florence: U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller estimated that rebuilding properly after Florence’s damage to Camp Lejeune would cost about $3.6 billion.
“It’s not just sea level rise,” Kaine said. “There’s all kinds of weather emergencies and challenges that all of the services are dealing with on the climate side.”
Even before Hurricane Michael struck in early October, 2018 was on track to have among the highest number of billion-dollar extreme weather events since federal officials began tallying them that way in 1980. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its full 2018 U.S. disaster assessment on Feb. 6.
NOAA counted 14 weather and climate disasters in 2018 exceeding $1 billion each, including Hurricanes Michael ($25 billion) and Florence ($24 billion) and the year’s devastating western wildfires, which were counted as one ($24 billion).
Together, the year’s billion-dollar disasters killed at least 247 people and did at least $91 billion in damage, NOAA reported.
Hurricane Florence was blamed for 53 of those deaths. North Carolina’s governor said the storm also caused nearly $17 billion in damage in that state alone when it stalled over the coast in September, bringing 30 inches of rain in some areas and sending rivers over their banks and into towns and homes.
Then, in November, the Camp Fire erupted in northern California and swept through the town of Paradise, killing at least 86 people and destroying about 14,000 homes, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. Damage from the fires surpassed $18 billion, the previous record for all U.S. wildfires in a single year, a record that was set just last year, said Adam Smith, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who oversees the federal government’s tally of billion-dollar weather events.
Extreme rain and hail storms in the nation’s midsection, tornadoes in the Southeast, wildfires in the West and drought in the Southwest all ran up costs in property damaged and crops and lives lost.
“2016, 2017 and 2018 have all been near record levels as far as extreme weather and climate events,” Smith said. “Lots of changes are happening. The future is being more and more defined by extreme events.”
“Where we build, how we build, and climate change” are the three leading factors for the increasing number of costly disasters, he said.
NOAA reported that 2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record globally, with the average global temperature 1.42°F (0.79°C) above the 20th Century average. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have been since 2005, and the top five have been the last five years. NOAA doesn’t quantify the connection between global warming and disasters in its annual disaster report, but its scientists note other research that is making those connections.
Climate Change Is ‘Weighting the Dice’
Global warming is exacerbating several types of extreme weather events, including extreme rainfall, droughts, heat waves and longer wildfire seasons with more intense fires, Smith said. At the same time, more people are moving into harm’s way in forested areas, raising the risks for wildfire damage, and into coastal and low-lying areas at risk of flooding.
The rise of global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities that increase greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is “weighting the dice against us,” as Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and co-director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, puts it.
“It’s taking the natural ‘weather dice,’ where there is always a chance of naturally rolling a double six, which is an extreme heat wave, wildfire, or hurricane event, and loading them against us,” she said. “We are starting to roll more and more double sixes than we should.”
Federal Agencies Struggle to Keep Up with Costs
While the Trump administration continues to deny that climate change is happening and pursues a pro-fossil-fuel agenda that will increase greenhouse gas emissions, federal agencies are struggling to keep up with the costs.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program has been in debt since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, paying out more in claims some years than it takes in in premiums. Despite a $16 billion bailout in 2017 to help cover claims from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the program’s debt was more than $20 billion before the start of the 2018 hurricane season.
“The federal government isn’t going to be able to put out the kind of resources it did in 2017 every single year or even every other year,” said Rob Moore, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “At some point we have to start thinking seriously about a new paradigm, about how we prepare for the impacts of climate change, cope with what the future has in store, as well as recover from these disasters as they occur.”
The Forest Service is also spending more to fight wildfires. From 1995 to 2015, the percent of its annual budget devoted to fighting forest fires increased from 16 percent to 52 percent, forcing the agency to cut financing for other programs.
In a 2015 report, the Forest Service wrote: “The agency is at a tipping point. Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970. The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.” Last year, the service had surpassed $2 billion in firefighting expenses by September.
The insurance industry has also taken note.
“As the losses increase, we unfortunately also see an increase in the protection gap, the difference between the economic loss of an event and the insured loss of the event,” Marla Schwartz, an atmospheric-perils specialist at reinsurance company Swiss Re, said. During Hurricane Harvey, the economic loss was around $85 billion, while the insured loss was about $30 billion. “There was a huge protection gap either because people don’t have insurance, [or] they are underinsured.”
For some regions of the country, better insurance may not be enough. Increasing vulnerability resulting from a combination of new developments in low-lying areas and a changing climate may prove too much.
“In the Deep South, Louisiana in particular, [they] continually get hit by these impacts and they are never really able to recover,” Smith said. “It impacts their ability to grow economically, and as a society, because they are continually impacted and never made whole. They can’t move forward.”