As it came to a frigid end on the East Coast, 2017 cemented its place in the record books as a year of weather-related disasters. Thanks to three close together hurricanes and a prolonged wildfire season in the west, disaster spending in the United States reached a new high.
Scientists warn that a year like 2017 isn’t an anomaly, it is the new normal as the planet heats up and people continue to settle in places at high risk for flooding, fires and other disasters.
The year just ended is mostly likely to be the most expensive ever in terms of disaster-related costs. In October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had tallied 15 weather and climate disasters in the U.S. that each caused at least $1 billion in damages, and that didn’t include the latest round of wildfires in California. The tally for the full year will be released later this month. The 2017 events included in the October NOAA inventory were two floods, a freeze, seven severe storms, three tropical cyclones, a drought and wildfire, which collectively caused 282 fatalities, although the official death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria is expected to rise.
Requests for federal disaster aid were 10 times higher in 2017 than in 2016. More than 4.7 million Americans had registered for aid with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as of early November. In 2016, 480,000 American sought aid; only 180,000 did the previous three years.
The costs are not just financial. Fourteen residents of a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home died of heat exposure during and after Hurricane Irma when the facility lost power to its air conditioning. Twelve of the deaths have been declared homicides. Smoke inhalation from the fires in California is likely to increase asthma and other respiratory ailments, as well and heart problems. The incidence of mental health problems has been documented to increase after a disaster.
What is happening? For one, 2017 was hot. Temperatures were so high in the southwest in June that flights were grounded in Phoenix, where nighttime temperatures remained above 100 degrees. Nearly all of the country experienced above average mean temperatures last year.
Second, more rain is falling on the US. More rain, of course, means more flooding and more powerful hurricanes. It also confirms that the planet is warming, scientists say. Air can hold about 7 percent more water for every degree Celsius increase in temperature.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were noteworthy for how quickly they dumped vast amounts of rain on the Gulf Coast and Caribbean islands. Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana in late August, dumped nearly 61 inches of rain on parts of Texas, a new record. Hurricane Irma dumped nearly 11 inches of rain an hour on Cuba at its peak rainfall.
The answer, of course, is not to roll back regulations on climate-change inducing pollutants or to promote the production and burning of fossil fuels, which emit these pollutants, as the Trump administration is doing. Congress isn’t providing much leadership either. But, 2018 is an election year and Americans can send a strong message by voting for candidates who take the threat of climate change seriously.
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