Record number of $1 billion disasters hit the U.S. in 2020

A destroyed wig and makeup storefront after Hurricane Laura made landfall in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Aug. 27, 2020.
Register now

(Bloomberg) -- California fires, Atlantic hurricanes and a Midwest windstorm were among a record number of $1 billion disasters that hit the U.S. last year, highlighting the intensifying threat of climate change, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The agency tracked 22 billion-dollar calamities in 2020, surpassing the old record of 16 set in 2017 and 2011. Losses reached $95 billion, making last year the fourth costliest since 1980, NOAA said in a report Friday.

“Climate change, of course, is an increasing driver of some of these extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters,” said Adam Smith, a climate scientist with the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina.

The U.S. suffered a seemingly endless string of extreme weather in 2020. An unprecedented 30 hurricanes and tropical storms formed across the Atlantic and an all-time high of 12 hit the U.S. Hurricane Laura, which struck Louisiana in August, topped the list of costliest events, causing $19 billion in damages, the agency said.

In the West, wildfires spurred on by warm temperatures and dry winds burned record acreage, costing $16.5 billion while, in the Midwest, a derecho tore a path of destruction that caused $11 billion in losses. Other disasters included hail storms in the Midwest and Texas in April and May, tornadoes in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys in the spring and drought and heatwaves in the western U.S. through the summer and fall.

Along the Gulf Coast, flooding has proven especially destructive. As the atmosphere warms, it can carry more moisture leading to more widespread inundation, according to Smith. From 2010 to 2019 there were more $1 billion flood events than in the previous 30 years combined.

“These are the fingerprints of climate change on extremes that we should expect to see continue,” Smith said.

Global warming isn’t the only risk factor. Growing populations along vulnerable coastlines and in fire zones, as well as more expensive property, ramp up the potential damage and raise reconstruction and repair costs. Since 1980, the Gulf Coast states of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas have had the most billion-dollar events followed by California, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

In all, there have been 285 such events since 1980, causing more than $1.87 trillion in damage and leading to 14,485 deaths.

Bloomberg News