US adds more billion-dollar disasters to 2011 list

A story from Miguel Llanos at MSNBC.com shares the facts that 2011 was one of the costliest weather-related disaster years on history with at least 9 events topping $1 billion in damages each. The current tally is 12 weather-related disasters totaling $52 billion for the year — and the year is not yet over!

Just last August the federal officials who track weather disasters said 2011 would go down as a record year with 9 events topping $1 billion in damages. On Wednesday, those same authorities upped the number to 12 events — totaling $52 billion in damages –and said there’s still a chance for one or two more to be added to the list.

“In my weather career spanning four decades, I’ve never seen a year quite like 2011 … record-breaking extremes of nearly every conceivable type of weather,” National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes said in a statement accompanying the new figures.

The National Climatic Data Center said more detailed accounting led to these newcomers:

Texas, New Mexico, Arizona wildfires (Spring-summer-fall). These had been incorporated into a broader disaster category in the August report (See below under Southern Plains/Southwest drought), but were pulled out when damages exceeded $1 billion, with five deaths.

Midwest / Southeast tornadoes (June 18-22). New numbers now put damages at $1.3 billion, with three deaths from an estimated 81 twisters.

And two other events are nearing that mark:

Northeast pre-Halloween storm (Fall). This “has a 50/50 chance of exceeding $1 billion,” center forecaster Adam Smith tells msnbc.com. “It may be a stretch to indicate that this winter storm is ‘likely’ to surpass the mark. But we will have an update on this in next month’s update.”

East Coast Tropical Storm Lee (Fall). “At this point, the data suggest that the damage from Tropical Storm Lee has an unlikely (less than 50/50) chance to reach the $1 billion mark,” Smith added.

The events followed a report last August that listed 9 events topping $1 billion for the year. A few days later, Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast, causing $7.3 billion in damages, claiming 45 lives, and bringing the total to 10 events.

The old record was 9 events, set in 2008.

Moreover, the annual average has gone way up. In the 1980s, the U.S. averaged just over one weather disaster a year, the center stated. In the 1990s, the average was 3.8 a year — and that jumped to 4.6 in the 2000s and 7.5 in the past two years.

When the August report was released, Hayes called the rising frequency and cost of extreme weather a “new reality.”

The higher costs are due partly to a rising population, with more people and more buildings in environmentally vulnerable areas, such as coastal regions, Hayes told reporters.

Asked if global warming was to blame for the rising frequency of wild weather, Hayes called that “a research question” and that it would be difficult to link any one severe season to overall climate change.

But by Wednesday, he was ready to consider a bigger picture. “With our changing climate, the nation must be prepared for more frequent extreme weather in the future,” he said in a video statement that was part of an “Extreme Weather 2011” website.

August report on billion-dollar disasters

Wednesday’s report also updated figures for the earlier 9 events:

Upper Midwest flooding (Summer). Losses exceeded $2 billion, with at least 5 deaths.

Mississippi River flooding (Spring-summer). $3-4 billion in damage, 2 deaths.

Southern Plains/Southwest drought, heat wave (Spring-summer). Total direct losses are near $10 billion.

Midwest/Southeast tornadoes (May 22-27). An estimated 180 tornadoes caused 177 deaths, most in Joplin, Mo., and $9.1 billion in damage.

Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest tornadoes (April 25-30). An estimated 305 tornadoes left 327 dead and caused $10.2 billion in damage.

Midwest/Southeast tornadoes (April 14-16). An estimated 160 tornadoes killed 38 people and caused $2.1 billion in damage.

Southeast/Midwest tornadoes (April 8-11). An estimated 59 tornadoes caused $2.2 billion in damage.

Midwest/Southeast tornadoes (April 4-5). An estimated 46 tornadoes left 9 dead and caused $2.8 billion in damage.

Central/East Groundhog Day Blizzard (Jan. 29-Feb. 3). The storm was tied to 36 deaths and caused $1.8 billion in damage.

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