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U.S. cities hit by more billion-dollar disasters than ever in 2017

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And new federal policies mean cities will be increasingly ill-equipped to address them

Firefighters spray water at the remains of an apartment complex destroyed by the Thomas Fire on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. The fire, which is still burning, is now the largest in California history.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes: 2017 walloped the US with a record-breaking number of extreme weather events. At the same time, the country’s scientific safety net has been eroded by new federal policies, leaving the US even less prepared to deal with the next disaster—as a warming climate increases the frequency and intensity of such events.

In February of 2017, I wrote about how US cities would have to work harder than ever to protect themselves from extreme weather events due to the imminent actions of the new administration. In the past year, President Trump delivered on his promises to back out of the United Nations’ Paris climate accord and roll back emissions-reducing initiatives like the Clean Power Plan. His administration has also taken steps to weaken policies that will help protect cities from extreme weather, like lifting regulations on construction in flood-prone regions and suppressing essential climate research.

The federal government tracks “billion-dollar weather and climate disasters,” extreme weather events that cost states $1 billion or more (adjusted for inflation). The figures for 2016 noted that the year had the second highest number of billion-dollar disasters since 1980. In 2016 there were 15 billion-dollar disasters that caused 138 fatalities and a total of $46 billion in losses.

But that was nothing compared to 2017.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information hasn’t published its year-end report for 2017, but by October of last year, the 2017 losses had far surpassed those of 2016. That was before the wildfire events that ravaged Northern and Southern California. My colleagues at Vox have extrapolated on NOAA’s October data and made estimates for the rest of the 2017 disasters (not included are the December fires in Southern California, where the still-burning Thomas Fire is now the largest fire in California history).

2017 was the costliest year by far, with economic losses totaling almost $400 billion.

Every scientist I spoke to while researching my story last year was greatly concerned about the anti-science actions of the incoming administration, and how they might impact not only the ability to predict and prepare for such disasters, but also the way cities handle disaster response and recovery.

“For 100 years we’ve been in the mode of ‘let’s see what happens when it happens,’” said Kenneth Hudnut, the United States Geological Society’s (USGS) science advisor for risk reduction, who helps cities understand the hazards, risks, and costs of mitigating natural disasters. “Now we are using science and engineering and technology to intelligently protect those assets and ensure against future losses.”

For evidence of the administration’s transformation, look no further than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has undergone such significant changes in the past year that its mission of using science to protect our cities has been undermined. Career public servants have been ousted from the agency, and grants that once went to scientific organizations are now going to industry groups.

In September, Hurricane Harvey poured a year’s worth of rain over Houston in a 72-hour period, putting more than 30 percent of Harris County underwater.
Max Burkhalter

When a city experiences a major extreme weather event, for example, the EPA is usually on-site to ensure that living conditions are safe for victims. After Hurricane Harvey, an Associated Press investigation found the EPA wasn’t monitoring flooded toxic waste sites, putting the health of more Houston-area residents at risk.

In fact, agencies like the EPA will need to expand their protection of public health as cities are faced with ongoing climate-related issues like extreme heat, air pollution, or longterm power failures—the horrific reality that millions of Puerto Ricans are confronting after Maria.

As noted by a New York Magazine story, published as Puerto Rico experienced its 100th day without reliable electricity, these cascading effects—“more stress, more disease, more accidents”—lead to more fatalities. When New York City experienced a blackout that lasted just one day in 2003, the city saw a 28 percent increase in overall mortality.

A car battery and a generator provide power for a makeshift street party in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico on Christmas Eve, 2017. Approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity after Hurricane Maria.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Instead of the official—and artificially low—death count of 64 in Puerto Rico, several sources assert that at least 1,000 people have been killed by what is being dubbed not a natural but a man-made disaster.

The lights are not going on anytime soon—the government contractors with little experience that were hired to restore the power grid stopped work after they were accused of overcharging Puerto Rico’s utility company, and are now being investigated by the FBI.

Extreme weather events have always exacted a toll on US cities, but a severe humanitarian crisis of the scale we’ve seen in Puerto Rico is avoidable with comprehensive policies that allow cities to recover quickly from these types of disasters—and the climate leadership that might help to prevent them in the first place.