We all hope for safe communities, but the images of natural disasters have become painfully familiar in recent years–videos of hurricanes ripping roofs off houses, people sifting through the ashes of homes destroyed by wildfires, flooded houses, families in shelters, first-responders, children crying. Natural disasters leave wounds—physical and mental—death and financial loss. Some victims take years to recover, some never do.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the scorekeeper for our nation’s natural disasters and they do it in billions of dollars. In 2018, we suffered 14 natural disasters in which physical damage and the interruption of businesses totaled $91 billion. 2018 was only the fourth most expensive year for natural disasters—the cost of natural disasters in 2017 was over $300 billion. By contrast, comparable costs for the September 11, 2001 attacks ran to $149 billion.
The cost and frequency of natural disasters is growing. Between 1980 and 2018, there was an annual average of six natural disasters costing over $1 billion with an annual cost of $42 billion. The average of the last five years, 2014 – 2018 has come in more than twice as high at $100 billion. All of these figures are adjusted for inflation, so something real is going on here.
What will the annual figures, the suffering, and the loss of life be when the kids born this year can start voting in 2037? We have already doubled the long-term average. Will it double again to $200 billion with spikes of $400 billion? What will it be like to live in a country that has the equivalent loss of one or two 9/11 attacks every year?
As with most 2037 issues, we can reverse this trend with innovation and political will if we act now. We do not have to continue rebuilding in floodplains, we can restore wetlands that protect us from flooding, we can enact building codes that require elevating homes in flood prone areas, harden them against hurricane force winds and earthquakes, make them more fire resistant in fire prone areas, and manage the brush that spreads wildfires. We can do better.
A recent study concluded that $1 spent on these types of mitigation efforts, when targeted to the right areas, typically results in $6 of savings. 1 to 6 are pretty good odds. Congress made a small down payment on prevention by passing the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, which allows diversion of some funds from disaster recovery to disaster prevention, but the amounts spent so far are pitifully small.
The federal government allocated a little less than $1 billion per year to minimizing losses from disasters between 2007 and 2016, or about 1% of their annual cost. In contrast, The New York Times estimated that the cost of Homeland Security and the two wars we launched to prevent the next 9/11 attack totaled about $3.1 trillion, or 208% of the direct cost of the attack. Is something out of whack here? What would the next generation of voters want our political leaders to do to keep the country safe for them? What would they want us to do?
Carter, Shan, and Amanda Cox. “One 9/11 Tally: $ 3.3 Trillion.” The New York Times, September 8 2011.
“Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018.” FEMA, https://www.fema.gov/disaster-recovery-reform-act-2018.
National Institute of Building Sciences Multihazard Mitigation Council. “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report.” Washington, DC: National Institute of Building Sciences, 2017.
Sack, Kevin, and John Schwartz. “As Storms Keep Coming, Fema Spends Billions in ‘Cycle’ of Damage and Repair.” The New York Times, October 8, 2018 2018.
Stauffer, Anne, Justin Theal, and Colin Foard. “Natural Disaster Mitigation Spending Not Comprehensively Tracked.” Pew, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2018/09/natural-disaster-mitigation-spending–not-comprehensively-tracked.
“U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters.” NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/.