US sees record number of ‘billion-dollar’ disasters so far this year

The government agency NOAA has tallied 23 billion-dollar weather disasters, surpassing a previous record set the year before.

A traffic warden stands on a street corner during a heatwave in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 12 [Frederic J Brown/AFP]

The United States has experienced a record number of natural disasters with damage estimated at more than $1bn, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reported, as extreme weather events increase due to climate change.

NOAA, a federal weather and storm monitoring agency, said in a statement on Monday that the country has experienced 23 separate billion-dollar disasters so far this year, affecting virtually every region of the country.

They include Hurricane Idalia in Florida, wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui and a violent weather system in the central part of the country that spawned as many as 145 tornadoes in the span of two days.

All told, the 23 billion-dollar disasters encompassed 18 instances of severe weather, two floods, one tropical cyclone, one wildfire event and one winter storm. Together, they caused more than 250 deaths and cost more than $57.6bn in damages.

“With approximately four months still left in the year, 2023 has already surpassed the previous record of 22 events seen in all of 2020,” NOAA said in its report.

Two events — a tropical storm that battered southern California in August and a drought that parched the southern and midwestern US — could still be added to the list, but the total damage they inflicted remains under assessment.

The report also highlighted ongoing threats exacerbated by climate change. While the month of July smashed global heat records, NOAA indicated that last month continued the trend, becoming the ninth warmest August in the last 129 years of US history.

The excess heat contributed to dry conditions, with 34 percent of the contiguous US suffering from drought — up by 6.2 percent from the beginning of August. The southern states of Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi also experienced their hottest August on record, with millions of residents under extreme heat advisories.

Those statistics echoed last week’s conclusions from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which reported that the northern hemisphere had experienced the hottest summer on record by a substantial margin.

Here are some of the extreme weather events that qualified as billion-dollar disasters.

Hawaii firestorm

One of the most devastating extreme weather events of the year occurred on the Hawaiian island of Maui on August 8, when a wildfire driven by high winds wiped out the town of Lahaina.

The fire killed at least 115 people, making it the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century. Authorities have estimated that property damage from the fire is valued at about $5.5bn.

Winter storms in California

From late December through March, the western state of California was hammered by a series of “atmospheric rivers“, bands of intense moisture known to trigger flooding and mudslides.

For nearly three months, the state — whose soil was brittle from years of drought — was pummelled with record-setting rain and snow. The resulting floodwaters killed more than 20 people and forced the evacuation of thousands more. Key agricultural areas were also inundated.

NOAA estimates the storms caused about $4.6bn in damage.

Hurricane Idalia

A hurricane that tore through Florida in late August left a trail of devastation across the state. On Monday, Florida officials increased the death toll to at least four.

NOAA has yet to release a figure on the cost of the damage, but authorities have said the number could reach $20bn, a level of destruction that could also prompt insurance companies to reconsider their policies in the hurricane-prone state.

Northeastern cold wave

An Arctic blast brought extreme cold and chilling winds to parts of the northeastern US in early February, resulting in school closures and power outages and inflicting $1.8bn in damage.

The winter storm also resulted in some of the coldest temperatures ever seen in the US. New Hampshire, for instance, measured wind chill temperatures of -78C (-108 degrees Fahrenheit), one of the lowest wind chills ever recorded.

Southern storms and tornadoes

On March 2 and 3, a series of severe storms spawned tornadoes and killed 13 people, according to NOAA.

The strong winds and heavy rain affected a wide swathe of the south and eastern US, including parts of Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.

In its wake, the storm system damaged homes, infrastructure and vehicles. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said the thunderstorms had generated wind powerful enough to “blow tractor-trailers off the road”.

NOAA estimates the storms caused $6bn of damage.

Colorado hail storms

Severe weather in the central and eastern US from June 21 through June 26 caused $3.5bn in damage, including a hail storm in the state of Colorado that injured at least 100 people.

More than 60 tornadoes swept across Wyoming, Colorado, Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies