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2011: Year of billion-dollar disasters

By Jim Kavanagh, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The U.S. has seen nine weather events that caused $1 billion this year, 2011
  • None of those has been a hurricane, and the brunt of that season is still to come
  • Development along coasts raises costs, insurance expert says
  • Better buildings, early warning and preparation can save lives, reduce damage
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(CNN) -- The Wood family of Piedmont, Oklahoma, barely made it to their storm-proof safe room before a huge tornado struck their house in late May. The Woods survived unhurt but the three-story house was destroyed and their dog, Roxie, disappeared.

The family got a bit of relief when Roxie was found safe almost two miles away a day later.

"I was very happy. I started dancing," 8-year-old Paisley Wood told CNN's Ed Lavandera shortly after the storm.

That storm was part of a six-day outbreak of an estimated 180 tornadoes that caused 177 deaths, including 157 in Joplin, Missouri. Total losses across 15 states were greater than $7 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The United States has already seen nine weather disasters this year that have caused $1 billion or more in damage, tying the record set in 2008. The total for all the disasters is about $35 billion.

"The year 2011 has already established itself in the record books as a historic year for weather-related disasters, and it is not over -- in fact, hurricane season is just getting under way," NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan told the Senate Appropriations Committee in late July.

Here are the other eight, according to NOAA, from most to least recent:

Upper Midwest flooding, summer

The Missouri and Souris rivers flooded across the Upper Midwest. About 11,000 people were forced to evacuate Minot, North Dakota, and thousands of acres of farmland flooded along the Missouri. Five people were killed, and estimated losses exceed $2 billion and counting.

Mississippi River flooding, spring-summer

Heavy rain and melting snow in the Ohio Valley caused historic flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. At least two people died, and the estimated economic loss ranges from $2 billion to $4 billion.

Southern Plains/Southwest drought, heat wave and wildfires, spring-summer

Drought, heat wave and wildfires have devastated parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Arkansas and Louisiana. The total direct losses are well over $5 billion, and the drought continues.

Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest tornadoes, April 25-30

An outbreak of 305 tornadoes over central and Southern states killed 327 people, including 240 in Alabama. Several of the storms struck heavily populated areas, including Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Huntsville in Alabama and Chattanooga, Tennessee, causing the damage costs to soar to more than $9 billion.

Midwest/Southeast tornadoes, April 14-16

Just a few days earlier, an outbreak of 160 tornadoes struck 10 central and Southern states, killing 38 people, 22 of them in North Carolina. Total property losses exceeded $2 billion.

Southeast/Midwest tornadoes, April 8-11

One week before that, an estimated 59 tornadoes in nine states didn't kill anyone but caused more than $2.2 billion in damage.

Midwest/Southeast tornadoes, April 4-5

In the first week of April, 46 tornadoes struck 10 central and Southern states, causing nine deaths and doing $2.3 billion damage.

Groundhog Day Blizzard, January 29-February 3

A large winter storm struck many states in the central, al, eastern and northeastern U.S., leaving 36 people dead. Total losses exceeded $2 billion.

"It's been extraordinary," said Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America. (Reinsurers provide financial backing to insurance companies.) "The earlier losses are really out of line with historic patterns. It's not unusual, of course, to have thunderstorm losses or tornado losses in the spring, but the scope of these has just been extraordinary."

Because insurance and reinsurance are global businesses, those losses are piled on top of those incurred during floods in Australia, an earthquake in New Zealand and the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Nutter said. Nevertheless, the insurance industry is in solid financial shape, he said.

Still to come is the height of hurricane season, which Nutter's industry tends to look at as the "big-ticket" loss season. NOAA is predicting 14 to 19 named storms, including seven to 10 hurricanes, as many as five of which could be Category 3 (with 111 mph winds) or higher.

Early warning saves lives, NOAA's Sullivan told the Appropriations Committee.

"The tornado warning for the Joplin area was issued 24 minutes before the tornado struck, a substantial improvement over the five-minute advance warnings that were typical just two decades ago," she said in asking the panel to fund the next generation of weather satellites.

Preparation also can save lives and property. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers tips for disaster readiness at www.ready.gov. After disaster strikes, victims can apply for relief at FEMA field offices or at www.disasterassistance.gov.

Insurance industry data show the costs of disasters are rising, even when adjusted for inflation. That's largely due to concentrated building of homes and businesses in vulnerable places, Nutter said.

"The reality is that our society has moved increasingly to areas with the greatest exposure to natural catastrophes along our coasts and rivers and invaded the natural landscape in areas susceptible to wildfire and drought," Nutter told the Senate Appropriations Committee in July. "Where these areas once served as natural habitats to wildlife and buffers from natural hazards, they are now populated with communities and infrastructure."

The value of developments along the U.S. coasts from New York to Florida and around the Gulf of Mexico to Texas exceeds $9 trillion, Nutter told CNN; $2 trillion of that value is in Florida alone, he said. More stringent building codes and restrictions on development in high-risk areas are essential to curtailing losses of life and property, Nutter said.

"Our population is moving closer and closer to the water. We're developing more low-lying and barrier islands every day, and along with that comes a heightened level of flood-related and water-related risks," said Fred Malik, who manages the Fortified for Safer Living programs of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

"...If we're going to have development in these areas, what are we going to do to mitigate the risks?" he said.

Inland, the risks from high winds and fires abound. Malik said homeowners everywhere should take steps to make sure their roofs are reinforced, their windows and doors are secure and their buildings have a fire-safe zone around them, he said.

Nailing plywood over windows doesn't provide much protection, Malik said. Corrugated metal or Lexan coverings with permanent anchoring systems are worth the investment, he said.

"There are techniques that are available to affordably and meaningfully reduce risk for natural hazards," Malik said. "People can take proactive and incremental steps; they don't have to eat the whole elephant at one time."

It's for people like the Wood family of Oklahoma that Malik wants buildings to be stronger.

"Yes, we're concerned about preserving life, but once somebody is evacuated, we want them to have something to come home to," he said.

"We want them to be able to return and not have lost all their memories and all those irreplaceable things that insurance just can't give you a check for and bring back -- your wedding dress, your photo albums, the mark on the door that showed how tall Susie or Billy was at age 10."

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