A New Measure of Climate Damage: Disasters are now common across the United States

WASHINGTON — The rising toll of climate change has been measured across the United States in terms of lives lost, buildings destroyed, and dollars spent on recovery. But a report released Wednesday uses a different metric: Which parts of the country have suffered the greatest number of federally declared disasters?

This rating is for disasters of such severity that they overwhelm the ability of state and local officials to respond. The report found that such disasters are becoming alarmingly common.

From 2011 through the end of last year, 90 percent of U.S. counties experienced a flood, tornado, wildfire, or other disaster serious enough to receive a federal disaster declaration, according to the report, and more than 700 counties experienced five or more such disasters. . During that same period, 29 states had, on average, at least one federally declared disaster each year somewhere within their borders. Five states have experienced at least 20 disasters since 2011.

The numbers exclude disaster declarations related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Climate change is here,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit organization that helps communities recover from disasters, which produced the report. Every taxpayer pays the price for climate change.

This is not to say that climate change is hitting every part of the country to the same extent. Wealthy and densely populated cities are often better able to withstand the shock of extreme weather events. By focusing on federally declared disasters, the report is able to balance out these differences, offering something close to a true account of the places most vulnerable to the climate shocks they couldn’t handle on their own.

At the top of that list are five counties that have each seen, on average, more than one disaster annually since 2011. Those counties are concentrated in two regions: southern Louisiana (where counties are called parishes) and eastern Kentucky.

Louisiana is ahead of the rest of the United States in another area. The report found that over the past decade, the state has received more federal disaster money per capita — $1,736 per resident — than anywhere else in the country. Only New York State comes close at $1,348.

But the burden of climate shocks extends beyond the Gulf Coast and Appalachia. Since 2011, California has received 25 federal disaster declarations, including wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that resulted in $2.5 billion in federal funds to rebuild public infrastructure. Mississippi and Oklahoma each suffered 22 disasters. Iowa saw 21 cases, most of them due to severe storms and flooding

Even in states not usually associated with severe weather, some counties have had repeated setbacks. Fairfield County, Connecticut, which includes Greenwich and Stamford, has received eight federal disaster declarations since 2011. Grafton County, in central New Hampshire, has had seven. Morris County, New Jersey, 30 miles west of Manhattan, has nine.

Not every type of disaster is linked to climate change. For example, it is not clear whether there is an association between higher temperatures and earthquakes. But scientists are becoming increasingly convinced that a warming world is exacerbating floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other extreme weather events.

The data also shows which regions are least vulnerable to uncontrollable climate shocks, at least so far. States in the Midwest, including Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, are among those with the fewest federal disaster declarations, averaging about one every two years.

But the report’s authors say that just because the state has had fewer federal disaster declarations doesn’t mean it has gotten through the past decade largely unscathed.

At the bottom of the list is Nevada, which has only made three federal disaster declarations since 2011. Next door, Arizona has only six. However, Nevada and Arizona ranked first in heat-related deaths from 2018 to 2021, according to the report.

“Heat has the highest mortality rate of all climate influences, but disaster declarations have been very low,” said Ms Chester. The reason: Federal disaster declarations focus more on property damage than on direct human consequences such as illness, injury, or death.

However, the prevalence of federally declared disasters remains one tool for measuring the effects of climate change.

The report shows the importance of doing more to increase community resilience, said Victoria Salinas, FEMA’s acting deputy director for resilience. “By better understanding the risks, we can take action together more effectively to accelerate resilience and adaptation in our country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities,” she said.

To drive this new spending, Rebuild by Design suggests, states should charge an additional 2 percent on insurance premiums.

The American Property Casualty Insurance Association, which represents insurers, rejected the proposal, saying it could make insurance less expensive and could lead some people to not afford adequate disaster recovery coverage. Adding an extra cost to insurance policies “is the wrong approach,” Don Griffin, vice president of the association, said in a statement.

Using an insurance surcharge to pay for disasters is a strategy already in use, to some extent. As the report notes, Florida is charging extra for private insurance policies to make up for shortfalls in the state-run insurance program—something that likely will happen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

Rebuild by design proposes to reverse the chronology. Instead of taxing insurance payments to pay for disaster recovery, the state would come up with extra money before the storm, then use that money to better prepare communities before disaster strikes, possibly making it unnecessary for the federal government to declare a disaster at all.

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