Special Edition: Natural Disasters Toolbox

August 31, 2011

Natural disasters, such as those caused by hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms, heat waves, drought, and blizzards, ebb and flow in their frequency, deadliness, and cost. Their impacts are affected by factors such as building location and quality, emergency response capability, and education of the public.

Though these events tend to be called natural disasters, humans often play an important role in shaping the magnitude of the impact. For instance, people start about 80-90% of all wildfires in the US. Many developed areas are in known floodplains or coastal surge zones, or straddle major earthquake fault lines. Building codes often are inadequate for known hazards, or are ignored.

When covering each type of natural disaster, you'll need to dig into a wide range of human, weather/climate, and geography issues to describe accurately to your audience what the trends are, how prevention and emergency responses might be improved, and whether the old calculus of whether it's worth it to adequately prepare for any given disaster might need to change, given current population numbers and densities, settlement patterns, and changing climate.

There is no single cause for the multiple, major natural disasters so far in 2011, but the number and severity are eye-catching. Prior to Hurricane Irene, each of 9 major natural disasters (caused by blizzards, tornadoes, floods, heat, drought, and wildfires) has wreaked havoc costing more than $1 billion dollars (for a total of more than $35 billion). It's likely that Hurricane Irene also has caused billions in damage, and hurricane season is just beginning to peak. The occurrence of 10 billion-dollar disasters in a year tops the modern-day record, set in 2008, and compares to the following number of similarly costly disasters in preceding years (with the billion-dollar threshold adjusted to 2011 dollars, and, like 2011, including both insured and uninsured losses):

2010=3
2009=6
2008=9
2007=5
2006=6
2005=5
2004=4
2003=4
2002=3
2001=2
2000=2
1999=4
1998=8
1980-1997=1-4 each year

In total, the 109 disasters of this magnitude since 1980 have cost more than $750 billion.

The most disaster-prone area is the entire southeast quadrant, including TX, AL, MS, GA, TN, NC, OK, AR, LA, FL, SC, and VA, with 26-35 events in each state. The next tier, with 20-25 events each, includes KS, MO, and KY. States with 16-20 events each include CA, NE, IN, OH, PA, and NY. In the middle range of risk, with 13-15 events each, are IA, IL, WV, MD, and NJ.

The leading causes of damage are hurricanes/tropical storms ($367 billion of the $726 billion total through 2010), heatwaves/drought ($185 billion), nontropical floods ($74 billion), and severe weather ($41 billion).

In addition to the dollar costs, many of these events kill people. In 2010, leading killers were heat (138 deaths), floods (103), rip currents (64), tornadoes (45), winter storms (42), cold (34), wind (33), and lightning (29).

  • Natural Hazard Statistics (NOAA's National Weather Service) includes data on fatalities from 1995-2010, by nation, state, type of hazard, age, gender, and sub-location (such as outside, in a vehicle, etc.); fatality data back to 1940 for some categories (includes a total for all annual costs associated with natural hazards from 1988-2010; the current 10-year annual average, which includes the years for Hurricane Katrina and several other major hurricanes, is about $23 billion in damage and 578 deaths, with the leading killers being hurricanes, heat, and floods) .

Looking at the full range of types and magnitude of natural disasters, the company Munich Reinsurance America says there were a record-breaking 250 such events in the US in 2010. Overall, the company says these disasters have tripled in number in the past 20 years. One of the notable culprits has been thunderstorms. So far in 2011, the company says there have been $16 billion in insured losses from 43 thunderstorms (and another $8 billion in uninsured losses), more than double the January-June average of $6.4 billion in insured losses for 2001-2010 (all in 2010 dollars). Overall, thunderstorm losses are up about 500% since 1980.

The company's data is generally proprietary, but it may be willing to provide some data by topic or geographic area. Contact Terese Rosenthal, 609-243-4339, with your request, and allow her time to acquire information from the database in Germany.

For a quick company perspective on the US and the world so far in 2011, see:

For NOAA's information on a wide range of natural disasters in any state or county (including type of event, deaths, injuries, cost of damage to property or crops, and a narrative summary of the event), search:

Among other general sources that may be useful are:

As you dive into any one type of disaster, here are a few starting points. You can find more sources and ideas by searching the TipSheet site or the Useful Links site.

DROUGHT

As just one example of the economic damage wrought by drought, Texas has just set a record for its related agricultural dollar losses.

DUST STORMS

EARTHQUAKES

FLOODS

HAIL

  • National Weather Service, Hail.

HEAT

HURRICANES

LANDSLIDES

LIGHTNING

THUNDERSTORMS

TORNADO

The town of Greensburg, KS, provides a novel example of a community that re-examined its philosophy and priorities after it was destroyed by a tornado May 4, 2007. If a similar disaster occurs in a community you cover, lessons from Greensburg may be an informative angle to explore.

WILDFIRES

An overarching issue of all these events is that the budgets of the National Weather Service, the US Geological Survey, NASA, and other key federal agencies have been cut, and may be cut substantially more, as the federal budget debate continues. Talk to your local weather, emergency response, and planning officials to see how this may affect their work, and the extent to which they'll be able to help people prepare for disasters, and warn them as they are about to hit.

For two perspectives on possible budget cut impacts, see: