Ninety percent of counties in the United States experienced a weather disaster between 2011 and 2021, according to a report published Wednesday.
Some have endured as many as 12 federally declared disasters in those 11 years. More than 300 million people – 93% of the country’s population – live in these provinces.
Rebuild by Design, which published the report, is a non-profit organization exploring ways to prepare for and adapt to climate change. It was started by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the catastrophic storm that swept across the eastern U.S. just over a decade ago, causing $62.5 billion in damage.
Investigators had access to data from contractors working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which allowed them to analyze disasters and payouts down to the county level. The report contains about 250 cards. We also looked at who is most vulnerable, and compared how long people are without power in different places after extreme weather.
California, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Iowa and Tennessee had the most disasters, at least 20 each, including severe storms, wildfires, flooding and landslides. But completely different states — Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, North Dakota and Vermont — received the most disaster funding per person over the 11-year period.
Amy Chester, general manager of Rebuild by Design and co-author of the report, said she was surprised to see some states getting more money to rebuild than others. In part, it’s that the cost of living differs between states. This also applies to the monetary value of what is damaged or destroyed.
“Disaster funding often focuses on communities that are more affluent and have the most resources,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of environmental and climate justice at Texas Southern University, who was not part of the team that wrote the report. Bullard co-wrote a book, “The Wrong Complexion for Protection,” in 2012 with another environmental and climate justice expert, Beverly Wright, about how federal responses to disasters often exclude black communities.
The new report seems to support that. People most vulnerable to the effects of these extreme weather events are not receiving much of the money, the report said. Those parts of the country also have the longest blackouts.
“When disaster struck…. the funding is not reaching where it is most needed,” said Bullard.
Another reason for the disparity of funds could be that heat waves are excluded from the federal disaster law and do not trigger government assistance. If they did, states in the Southwest such as Arizona and Nevada could rank higher in terms of spending per person.
“The report was prepared by policy advocates, not scientists, and goes too far to attribute every weather catastrophe to climate change. That is incorrect. Climate change has boosted the climate and made some hurricanes stronger and disasters more frequent,” said Rob Jackson, a climate scientist at Stanford University. But, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to call every disaster we’ve had in the last 40 years a climate disaster.”
While all the weather disasters collected are not due to climate change, Jackson said the collection may still have value.
“I think there’s a service to highlighting that weather disasters now essentially affect all Americans, regardless of where we live.”
The annual cost of disasters has skyrocketed, he said, to more than $100 billion by 2020. The National Centers for Environmental Information projected more than $150 billion for 2021.
The federal government provided counties with a total of $91 billion to recover from extreme events over the 11 years, the researchers found. That only includes expenses from two programs from FEMA and HUD, not individual assistance or insurance benefits from the agency. Nor does it include assistance from other agencies such as the Small Business Administration or Army Corps of Engineers.
Chester said if all of these federal disaster relief programs were included, the total would be much higher. The National Centers for Environmental Information estimates that more than $1 trillion will be spent on weather and climate events between 2011 and 2021.
The report recommends the federal government to prevent disasters rather than wait for events to happen. It cites the National Institute of Building Sciences as saying that every dollar invested in mitigating natural disasters by building levees or doing prescription burns saves the country $6.
“The most important takeaway for us is that our government continues to invest in places that have already suffered rather than investing in the areas of greatest social and physical vulnerability,” Chester said.
Photo: A worker scrapes mud and tile away from flood-damaged Saint Rose High School in Belmar, NJ after storm surge caused by superstorm Sandy in 2012. 90% of United States counties experienced a weather-related disaster between 2011 and 2021 , according to a report published Nov. 16. (TBEN Photo/Mel Evans, File)
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