Weather’s Dozen: 2011 Breaks U.S. Billion-Dollar Disaster Record

BY Paul Solman  December 9, 2011 at 5:19 PM EDT

An evacuation sign asks residents to leave June 9, 2011 in Eagar, Arizona. An evacuation sign asks residents to leave Eagar, Ariz. as the Wallow Fire swept through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images.

Between fires, twisters, hurricanes, droughts and floods, 2011 has been Mother Nature’s most continuously whopping year for the United States.

With data recently updating the number of weather disasters passing the billion-dollar mark, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now counts a record of 12 disasters — smashing the previous record of nine such calamities in 2008 by a third. In total, the dozen have killed almost 650 people and add up to more than $52 billion in economic damage.

“One billion dollars represents the upper tier of the worst natural disasters,” Christopher Vaccaro, spokesman for the National Weather Service at NOAA, told us. “In a year there are numerous smaller events that might cause damage in the hundreds of thousands or in the millions, but when you get to a weather disaster that gets into the billions, you’re getting into a significant event that had tremendous economic loss and also an impact on human livelihood. That threshold is truly representative of some of the worst of the worst.”

The kicker about this record? It might climb higher before 2012 rings in. Damage costs are still being added up for two disasters — the snowstorm that hit the northeast around Halloween, and Tropical Storm Lee, which made landfall at the beginning of September. The Associated Press reports both are currently at $750 million in damage.

Vaccaro also notes that this year was remarkable for the diversity in weather disasters. “We’ve seen extreme weather in almost every category,” he said.

Here’s a roundup of each disaster, its corresponding economic cost and some additional interesting bits.

When adjusted for inflation, the nation has seen an increase in billion-dollar disasters each decade. During the 1980s, the average was about one major disaster a year, and climbed to nearly four every year of the ’90s. The new millennium saw four to five annually, and the average over the past two years has been 7.5.

“It’s hard to get past the human suffering before you start thinking about the economic cost of it,” said John Whitehead, economics professor at Appalachian State University and co-author of the blog Environmental Economics. “But it seems like we have so many more of these [disasters] because our population is growing, and more people are living closer to the coasts — there are more people in harm’s way.”

While 2011′s dozen is a record for the sheer number of disasters costing over $1 billion, it’s $52 billion in damages only ranks in the top quarter of expensive years, wild-weather wise, according to NOAA. The record is 2005, when Hurricane Katrina caused $134 billion in damages alone.

According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, 99 disasters causing a billion dollars or more in damages each have struck the United States in the last 30 years. A map through 2010 details the type of weather disasters, the dollar loss and when they occurred — you can see which states have been spared, so to speak, and which have been struck, sometimes repeatedly.