The Decade’s Biggest Weather & Climate Disasters

There is generally always a time of reflection at the end of the year, and even more so at the end of a decade. The National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) is responsible for monitoring and assessing the climate, and one of the ways they so is by tracking and evaluating the climate events that have great economical and societal impacts. These include drought, flooding, freezes, severe storms, tropical cyclones, wildfires, and winter storms. We’ve gathered together a list of the ten events that had the greatest economic impact between 2010-2019. Note that the total cost of several events from 2019 are still being calculated, including:

  • Tropical Storm Imelda – September 2019; Imelda represents the fifth 500-year flood that has impacted a portion of southeast Texas over the last five years;
  • Hurricane Dorian – September 2019; Dorian’s intensification to a category 5 storm marks the fourth consecutive year, in which a maximum category 5 storm developed in the Atlantic basin – a new record;
  • Mississippi River, Midwest and Southern Flooding – July 2019; historic flooding impacting agriculture, roads, bridges, levees, dams and other assets across many cities and towns;
  • Arkansas River Flooding – June 2019; historic flooding impacts thousands of homes, cars and businesses  due a combination of high rivers, levee failure and persistently heavy rainfall from May 20 through mid-July;
  • Missouri River and North Central Flooding – March 2019; historic Midwest flooding inundates millions of acres of agriculture, numerous cities and towns and causes widespread damage to roads, bridges, levees and dams
Hurricane María approaching Puerto Rico on September 19, 2017. NOAA GOES-16 satellite image overlaid on NASA Blue Marble background image. Image by Tim Loomis, NOAA Satellites group. 

10. Hurricane Irene (2011)

Hurricane Irene made landfall as a strong Category 1 hurricane near Cape Lookout, North Carolina around 7:30 AM August 27, 2011. As the storm moved northward along the Mid-Atlantic coast, it caused torrential rainfall and flooding from North Carolina to Vermont. Wind damage in coastal NC, VA, and MD was moderate with considerable damage resulting from falling trees and power lines, while flooding caused extensive flood damage across NJ, NY, and VT. Over seven million homes and businesses lost power during the storm. Numerous tornadoes were also reported in several states further adding to the damage. There were 45 deaths associated with Irene.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $17.7

9. Western Wildfires, California Firestorm (2017)

A historic firestorm damaged or destroyed over 15,000 homes, businesses and other structures across California in October 2017. Extreme wildfire conditions in early December also burned hundreds of homes in Los Angeles. Numerous other wildfires across many western and northwestern states burned over 9.8 million acres exceeding the 10-year annual average of 6.5 million acres. Montana in particular was affected by wildfires that burned in excess of 1 million acres. These wildfire conditions were enhanced by the preceding drought conditions in several states. There were 54 deaths associated with these wildfires.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $18.7

8. Hurricane Florence (2018)

Hurricane Florence made landfall around 7:15 AM just south of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane with storm surge up to 10 feet and wind gusts over 100 miles per hour. How did “just” a Category 1 hurricane cause so much damage? The majority of the damage caused by Florence was due to the rainfall inland, which caused many rivers to surpass previous record flood heights. Due to the large size and slow pace of Florence, it produced extreme rainfall across the Carolinas (over 35 inches in North Carolina and over 23 inches in South Carolina). This is a great reminder to listen to the messaging associated with storms, rather than just the categorical number. There were 53 deaths associated with Florence.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $24.5

7. Western Wildfires, California Firestorm (2018)

California experienced its costliest, deadliest, and largest wildfires in history (with records going back to 1933) in 2018. The Camp Fire (the costliest and deadliest wildfire) destroyed more than 18,500 buildings. The Medincino Complex Fire burned over 450,000 acres, becoming the largest wildfire on record. The total 2018 wildfire costs in California (with minor costs in other Western states) approach $24.0 ($24.5) billion – a new U.S. record. In total, over 8.7 million acres has burned across the U.S. during 2018, which is well above the 10-year average (2009-2018) of 6.8 million acres. There were 106 deaths associated with these fires.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $24.5

GOES-16 visible satellite image from 2:15 pm PDT Monday, October 9, 2017, showing plumes from the Northern California fires (center) being blown westward (downslope) across parts of the northern Bay Area and into the Pacific. At bottom is a smaller plume from the Anaheim Hills fire southeast of Los Angeles. Image credit: RAMMB/CIRA @ CSU.

6. Hurricane Michael (2018)

Hurricane Michael made landfall as a powerful Category 5 hurricane around 12:30 in the afternoon on October 10, 2018 with winds of 160 miles per hour and storm surge over 15 feet in some areas. Mexico Beach, where Michael made landfall, was nearly destroyed. Nearby Panama City also suffered extensive damage, as well as Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base. Michael’s intense winds also reached well inland causing billions in damage costs to agriculture and forestry, as high winds hit during harvest season for numerous crops across several states.  Michael was the first Category 5 to strike the U.S. mainland since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and is only the fourth on record. There were 49 deaths associated with Michael.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $25.2

5. U.S. Drought/Heatwave (2012)

Moderate to extreme drought conditions affected more than half the country for a majority of 2012, causing the most extensive drought to affect the US since the 1930s. The following states were impacted: CA, NV, ID, MT, WY, UT, CO, AZ, NM, TX, ND, SD, NE, KS, OK, AR, MO, IA, MN, IL, IN, GA.  There were widespread harvest failures for several crops, including corn, sorghum, and soybean. The associated summer heatwave also caused 123 direct deaths, but an estimate of the excess mortality due to heat stress is still unknown.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $33.9

4. Hurricane Irma (2017)

After devastating the U.S. Virgin Islands St John and St Thomas as a Category 5 hurricane, Hurricane Irma made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane at Cudjoe Key, Florida mid-day on September 10, 2017. Twenty-five percent of the buildings in the Florida Keys were destroyed, and 65% were significantly damaged. Severe wind and storm surge damage also occurred along the coasts of Florida and South Carolina. Jacksonville, FL and Charleston, SC received near-historic levels of storm surge causing significant coastal flooding. 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. There were 97 deaths associated with Irma.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $52.0

3. Hurricane Sandy (2012)

Although Hurricane Sandy was technically a post-tropical cyclone by the time it made landfall October 29, 2012, the strong hurricane-force winds and coastal storm surge caused extensive damage across several Northeastern states (including Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island). The winds, rain, and heavy snow associated with the storm also impacted several other states, including North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. There were widespread interruptions to electricity and water, and the storm caused 159 deaths (72 direct, 87 indirect). Sandy also caused the New York Stock Exchange to close for two consecutive business days, which last happened in 1888 due to a major winter storm.

Entrance to Battery Park Tunnel in NYC during Sandy. Source: NWS OKX/AP/TheAtlantic.com

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $73.5

2. Hurricane Maria (2017)

The Category 4 hurricane first struck then U.S. Virgin Island St. Croix and then made landfall in Puerto Rico just after 6:15 AM September 20, 2017. Maria’s high winds caused widespread devastation to Puerto Rico’s transportation, agriculture, communication and energy infrastructure. Rainfall totals of up to 37 inches led to widespread flooding and mudslides across the island. With 2,981 deaths, Maria was one of the deadliest storms to impact the U.S., with numerous indirect deaths in the wake of the storm’s devastation.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $93.6

1. Hurricane Harvey (2017)

Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane near Rockport, Texas on August 25, 2017. Harvey’s devastation was most pronounced due to the large region of extreme rainfall producing historic flooding across Houston and surrounding areas. Nearly 7 million people received 30 inches of rainfall, while 1.25 million received over 45 inches! 11,000 received over 50 inches based off 7-day totals ending August 31. The catastrophic flooding displaced over 30,000 people and damaged or destroyed over 200,000 homes and businesses. There were 89 deaths associated with Harvey.

CPI- Adjusted Estimated Cost (in billions): $130.0

A few more…

The disasters listed above were ranked as the top 10 costliest (in dollar amounts), but we would be remiss not to mention the tornadoes that occurred in 2011. There were two significant outbreaks this year, that cost nearly 500 people their lives.

First, there was an outbreak of several tornadoes over multiple central and southern states (including AL, AR, LA, MS, GA, TN, VA, KY, IL, MO, OH, TX, OK). There were an estimated 343 tornadoes with this outbreak, and the deadliest tornado of the outbreak, an EF-5, hit northern Alabama, killing 78 people. Several major metropolitan areas were directly impacted by strong tornadoes including Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Huntsville in Alabama and Chattanooga, Tennessee, causing the estimated damage costs to soar. There were 321 deaths associated with this outbreak.

Storm Reports Apr 27th

Just shy of a month later, there was once again an outbreak of an estimated 180 tornadoes over multiple central and southern states (this time impacting MO, TX, OK, KS, AR, GA, TN, VA, KY, IN, IL, OH, WI, MN, PA). Notably, an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, MO resulting in at least 160 deaths, making it the deadliest single tornado to strike the U.S. since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950. There were 177 deaths associated with this outbreak.

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