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An American flag hangs from a tree in a neighborhood destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

2017 is on track to be a record-setting year for massive natural disasters in the U.S.

Are major natural disasters on an uptick in 2017 compared to prior years? Government data suggests yes.

For the first nine months of 2017, the United States has endured 15 disasters that each cost $1 billion or more and collectively claimed 323 lives, all linked to weather and climate, according to the latest data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These 2017 disasters include:

  • Two floods
  • One freeze
  • Seven severe storms
  • Three tropical cyclones
  • One drought
  • One outbreak of wildfires

Among 323 confirmed fatalities from those disasters, 95 people died as a result of Hurricane Irma — the most deaths from a single natural disasters to date this year. Hurricanes were deadliest, and crews are still clearing away debris to find people who died after Hurricane Maria. But 25 people have died in wildfires that have scorched the western United States, and that death toll could continue to climb.

2011 set the record for billion-dollar disasters with 16 by year’s end, the National Centers for Environmental Information reported. With 15 major natural disasters this year, 2017 is on par with that record-setting year and shows no sign of slowing down.

By Thursday, the Sonoma wildfires claimed at least 37 lives with roughly 400 more people missing in California. Nearly 1,400 tornadoes have spun across the United States, according to preliminary government data. The Atlantic has witnessed a busy hurricane season, with 14 named storms since April 19, including five major hurricanes, according to NOAA, which in August predicted this year’s hurricane season to be the most active since 2010. And clean-up and recovery efforts after one of those major hurricanes — Hurricane Maria — continue in Puerto Rico three weeks after that storm churned over the entire island for more than 12 hours.

State governors have issued 140 emergency declarations so far in 2017, said Jeff McLeod, who directs the Center for Best Practices Homeland Security and Public Safety Division for the National Governors Association and works with state-based emergency management and intelligence officials, and said some of those declarations are re-upped from previous disasters. For instance, Louisiana still carries a handful of declarations after Hurricane Katrina struck the state’s coastline 12 years ago.

Nationwide, one of the biggest gaps in preparation and recovery is whether or not states have long-term recovery plans. Most states don’t, McLeod said. After first responders have saved all they can save, few states have a plan in place to rebuild.

“Once the response is over, how do you recover?” McLeod said. “How do you maintain your tax base? How do you make sure your communities are resilient? Not many states have comprehensive plans.”

And despite years of predictions from climate change experts who warn that rising sea levels will produce higher storm surges for more devastating floods and damage, few U.S. homebuyers take disaster risk into account when they want to settle down. According to a February 2017 survey from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, only 22 percent of Americans thought about natural disasters when they thought about where to buy a home.

In Puerto Rico, U.S. citizens are working to rebuild their lives after Hurricanes Irma and Maria crushed utilities and access to water and supplies in September.

The situation remains in flux, said Ariel Lugo, who lives near San Juan: “It’s a good day if you have power and water.”

Lugo, who directs the International Institute of Tropical Forestry for USDA Forest Service, said he and researchers plan to trek Wednesday to their research laboratory in El Yunque National Forest, the national forest system’s only tropical rainforest, where fallen trees made access roads impassable. There, Lugo said he expects to see the rainforest canopy carpeting the ground, high humidity and intense sunlight. If his team makes it to the lab, they hope to continue research he started in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo — studying how hurricanes reshape ecosystems.

“These hurricanes reset the forests,” he said. “If you’re not adapted, you disappear.”

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