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New record for billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. in 2020

Thursday, January 14th 2021, 5:02 pm - A total of 22 disasters caused almost $100 billion in damages, and killed 262 people, NOAA says.

2020 was yet another year for the record books, in a number of ways, from a record number of named Atlantic storms, to record wildfires in California, a record-large ozone layer hole, and indications that 2020 may have been the hottest year on record.

To all this, one more record can be added: A new report says the United States suffered its highest-ever number of disasters doing at least $1 billion in damage, a total of 22.

And according to the report, published by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it wasn't even close. The last record, held jointly by 2011 and 2017, was 16 events. Moreover, 2020 is the sixth consecutive year in with the U.S. suffered at least 10 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters.

In total, those 22 events added up to $95 billion in damages, and claimed 262 lives.

Severe weather events NOAA 2020 Image credit: NOAA

Severe weather events of this nature are happening more often, NOAA says. The agency has been tracking billion-dollar disasters since 1980, and over the past 40 years, the annual average for such disasters was seven. Their latest report, however, says the average for the last four years is more than double that, around 16 billion-dollar disasters.

"The odds are stacked against us due to exposure, vulnerability and climate change trending in the wrong direction," NOAA climatologist Adam Smith told CNN.

In dollar terms, the $95-billion tally is the fourth-highest, and more than double the annual average of $45.8 billion.


In all, NOAA's tally includes one drought event, 13 severe storm events, seven tropical cyclone events, and one wildfire event.

Those seven hurricanes and tropical storms together did around $40.1 billion, around 42 per cent of the total, the highest percentage by far.

One, Hurricane Laura in late August, is the single most expensive natural disaster in the U.S. in 2020, with $19 billion in estimated damage. The Category 4 storm made landfall in Louisiana in late August, bring extreme rainfall and storm surge of 4.5 metres. It left 42 people dead, and did so much damage to infrastructure and water systems that recovery will be lengthy.

Hurricane Laura GOES-16 GeoColor satellite/NOAA Seven tropical cyclones struck U.S. territory in 2020, including Category 4 Hurricane Laura (pictured), which did $19 billion in damage and claimed 42 lives. Photo: NOAA

Though NOAA counts only one wildfire event among its 2020 list, it was extensive and long-lived, burning more than 4 million hectares of land in the three Pacific Coast states from August to December. With a death toll of 46, it's the deadliest disaster on NOAA's list, and the second-costliest, at $16.5 billion.

"California more than doubled its previous annual record for area burned (last set in 2018) with over 4.1 million acres (1.7 million hectares). Five of the top six largest wildfires on record in California (dating to 1932) burned during August and September," NOAA says.

Over the past 40 years, the U.S. has suffered 285 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, adding up to $1.875 trillion in total damages.

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