New measure of climate balance: disasters are now common in the United States

WASHINGTON — The growing toll of climate change in the United States has been measured in 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 highest number of federally declared disasters?

This designation is reserved for disasters so severe that they overwhelm the ability of national and local authorities to respond. The report finds that disasters like these have become alarmingly frequent.

From 2011 to the end of last year, 90% of US counties experienced a flood, hurricane, wildfire or other calamity severe enough to receive a federal disaster declaration, according to the report, and more than 700 counties have suffered at least five such disasters. . During that same period, 29 states had, on average, at least one federally declared disaster per year somewhere within their borders. Five states have experienced at least 20 disasters since 2011.

Figures exclude disaster declarations related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Climate change is here,” said Amy Chester, chief executive of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that helps communities recover from disasters and which prepared the report. “Every taxpayer pays for climate change.”

This does not mean that climate change is hitting all parts of the country to the same degree. Wealthy, populous cities are often better able to withstand the shock of extreme weather events. By focusing on disasters declared at the federal level, the report is able to even out these differences, offering something close to a true accounting of the places most exposed to climate shocks that they cannot cope with alone.

Topping the list are five counties that have each experienced, on average, more than one disaster per year since 2011. These counties are concentrated in two regions: southern Louisiana (where the counties are called parishes) and the east of Kentucky.

Louisiana surpasses the rest of the United States in another respect. Over the past decade, the state has received more federal disaster dollars per capita — $1,736 for each resident — than anywhere else in the country, according to the report. 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 for 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 had 21, mostly for severe storms and flooding.

Even in states not typically associated with severe weather, some counties have seen frequent calamities. 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, NJ, in 30 miles west of Manhattan, got nine.

Not all types of disasters are associated with climate change. For example, it is not known whether there is a link between rising temperatures and earthquakes. But scientists are increasingly convinced that global warming is contributing to worsening floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other extreme weather events.

The data also shows the areas least exposed to unmanageable climate shocks, at least so far. Midwestern states, including Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, are among those with the lowest number of federal disaster declarations, averaging about one disaster every two years.

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

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

“Heat has the highest mortality of any climate impact, but their disaster claims were so low,” Ms Chester said. The reason: Federal disaster declarations focus more on property damage than on direct human consequences like illness, injury, or death.

Yet the prevalence of federally declared disasters remains a tool for measuring the effects of climate change.

The report shows the importance of doing more to increase community resilience, said Victoria Salinas, acting deputy administrator for resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “By better understanding the risks,” she said, “we can act together more effectively to accelerate resilience and adaptation in the most at-risk and disadvantaged communities in our country.”

To pay for these new expenses, Rebuild by Design proposes, states should impose a 2% surtax on insurance premiums.

The American Property Casualty Insurance Association, which represents insurers, rejected the proposal, saying it could make insurance less affordable and potentially lead to some people not having enough coverage to recover from disasters. Adding a surcharge 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 catastrophes is a strategy that is already being used, in a sense. As the report notes, Florida levies surcharges on private insurance policies to compensate for shortcomings in its state-run insurance program, which is likely to occur in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

Rebuild by Design proposes to reverse the chronology. Rather than taxing insurance payments to pay for disaster recovery, a state would provide additional funds before a storm, then use that money to better prepare communities before a disaster strikes, perhaps making unnecessary for the federal government to declare a disaster. .

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