The United States is facing a record-breaking number of billion-dollar disasters in 2023, signaling the country’s struggle to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there have been 23 such disasters so far this year. These include the deadly Maui fire, the strongest wildfire in the US in over a century, Hurricane Idalia striking Florida, and a Minnesota storm that caused power outages with hail the size of pingpong balls.
And that was just last month.
The increase in the frequency and cost of these disasters is not surprising. The burning of fossil fuels has led to rising air and water temperatures, resulting in stronger hurricanes, more intense rainfall, and faster-spreading wildfires.
The NOAA data shows a steady rise in billion-dollar disasters, from three in 1980 to 22 in 2020. This year has already surpassed that record.
However, these escalating disasters highlight more than just the effects of global warming. Despite billions of dollars spent by the federal government since Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to enhance resilience, these efforts have their limitations.
Recognizing these concerns, the Biden administration is increasing resilience spending. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has allocated historic levels of mitigation funding and has designated nearly 500 communities as “disaster resilience zones.”
“Rural communities are at the forefront of climate change,” said Kristin Smith, a researcher at Headwaters Economics. “But many lack the resources to address it.”
To tackle this issue, the Biden administration has been urging state and local governments to implement stricter building codes, which can significantly reduce the damage from disasters.
However, stricter codes come with higher upfront costs for homes, which is a major deterrent amidst the nation’s housing shortage. Only about one-third of American jurisdictions currently utilize the latest building codes.
As the frequency and cost of disasters rise, insurers are increasingly hesitant to provide coverage in high-risk states such as Florida, California, and Louisiana. The recent Maui wildfires have also raised concerns about the viability of the insurance market in Hawaii.
The unaffordability or unavailability of insurance can lead to broader economic decline, impacting home values and property-tax collection. This downward cycle, which has been limited to certain calamity-prone regions, is now at risk of becoming more widespread.
Amy Chester from Rebuild by Design emphasizes the need for the US to prioritize climate adaptation by investing in resilience and enforcing higher standards for infrastructure.
Adapting to climate shocks also necessitates considering the relocation of vulnerable populations. As Ms. Chester suggests, “Maybe we can’t continue to live everywhere we currently do.”
In the meantime, it’s important to note that billion-dollar disasters affect everyone. Rising federal disaster costs affect us all.
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