The United States experienced 28 disasters last year that each cost at least one billion dollars, the highest number on record and the latest measure of the growing toll of climate change.
Those disasters, tallied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, include the wildfire on Maui last August; Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida later that month; and Typhoon Mawar in Guam. The list also includes four floods, two tornado outbreaks, a heat wave, and 17 severe weather and hail events.
Since 1980, NOAA has tracked the number of disasters each year that produce damages exceeding $1 billion, controlling for inflation. The previous record was 2020, which saw 22 billion-dollar events. NOAA’s data show a clear upward trend, as the number of severe disasters increases each year.
That rise in billion-dollar disasters over time reflects two long-term shifts, according to NOAA. One is the growing frequency and severity of extreme weather events as global temperatures rise. The other is the continued development in vulnerable places, such as coastlines and fire-prone areas.
The financial toll has been enormous. Damages from last year’s disasters totaled at least $92.9 billion, according to NOAA.
The cost is also measured in human lives. Since 2017, at least 5,500 people have been killed in 137 billion-dollar disasters, according to Adam Smith, an applied climatologist at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
“There is an increased need to focus on where we build, how we build, and investing in infrastructure updates that are designed for a 21st-century climate,” Dr. Smith said.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Jaclyn Rothenberg, said in a statement that “thanks to President Biden’s Investing in America agenda and historic investments in climate resilience, FEMA finally has additional funds to invest heavily in existing and new programs that will help communities be more resilient to the growing threats of disasters driven by climate change.”
But the cost of last year’s disasters was almost double the $50 billion that Congress provided for climate resilience in the 2021 infrastructure bill, and far exceeds what FEMA and other federal departments provide each year to help Americans better protect their homes and communities against severe weather.
The disaster numbers show that the United States needs to urgently increase that spending, according to Samantha Montano, a professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who specializes in resilience and climate adaptation, said there’s a strong financial argument for Congress to provide more money to help the country cope with disasters.
The $93 billion in losses linked to disasters last year affect more than just the people who’ve lost homes and businesses to storms or fires, Dr. Keenan said. The costs also translate into higher insurance premiums and price hikes for basic goods like groceries.
“We all bear the costs of climate change,” he said.
In addition to a record breaking year for expensive disasters, last year was notable for heat, NOAA said. Louisiana, Texas and Massachusetts had their warmest years on record while Florida, Virginia and Connecticut each experienced their second-warmest years. Phoenix posted the hottest month on record for any American city in July, with an average temperature of 102.8 degrees. Death Valley in California set a daily record of 128 degrees on July 16, followed by what NOAA called its “hottest midnight temperature on record” — 120 degrees. On Aug. 24, Chicago reached a record-breaking heat index of 120 degrees.