August 18, 2011

Billions Of Dollars In Weather Disasters Already This Year

US agencies report that the country has already tied its yearly record for billion-dollar weather disasters and there are still 3 months left of the year and the hurricane season is just picking up.

The National Weather Service (NWS) said on Wednesday that the cumulative tab from floods, tornadoes and heat waves has already racked up $35 billion in damage, based on insurance estimates. Recent flooding in the Midwest has attributed $2 billion of that damage alone.

"I don't think it takes a wizard to predict 2011 is likely to go down as one of the more extreme years for weather in history," National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes told USA Today during a conference call.

"The nation is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather," said Hayes. The year has been marked by numerous disasters, such as the May twister that killed 160 people in Joplin, Missouri and the Texas heat wave that has already cost $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses.

Nationwide, the number of natural disasters has tripled in the last 20 years, according to insurance firm Munich Reinsurance America. Damages due to thunderstorms have become five times more severe in the past 30 years, reaching to $20 billion by midyear 2011.

The agency's parent organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), launched a campaign on Wednesday to better prepare Americans for violent weather, Hayes announced.

The campaign begins with nine pilot projects with the goal of improving disaster warnings to the public.

Projects include:

-- Testing a new emergency warning system in Charleston, WV.

-- Installing NWS experts directly in emergency management centers in Fort Worth, Texas and Silver Spring, Maryland.

-- Adding newly trained hurricane and coastal safety experts to an emergency management center in New Orleans.

-- Having rainfall forecasters work more closely with agencies that build and maintain levees and operate flood-control canals.

-- Helping communities stage disaster preparedness drills.

-- Asking behavioral scientists for advice on how to improve the wording of advisories so that the general public understands them, and how to deter risky behavior such as driving onto flooded roads.

-- Expanding the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and chatrooms to help spread weather warnings.

"We want to try to get every community in the USA storm-ready," said International Association of Emergency Managers USA President Eddie Hicks, who heads the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

With more than 150 million people living close to US coasts, and economic growth in Southern states hit hard by the tornadoes and flooding this year, Hayes said the nation faces an increasing risk from extreme weather simply because of demographics.

And with NOAA forecasting an "above-normal" hurricane season, Hayes said he is very worried about complacency. "We want people taking steps now to be ready for extreme weather," he said.

So far this year there have been nine disasters that have caused economic loss of $1 billion or more in the US, tying the 2008 record, according to NOAA.

When asked if global warming was to blame for the increased frequency in wild weather, Hayes said that it is difficult to link any one severe season to overall climate change.

NOAA's new warning was timed with the advent of what is usually regarded as the busiest part of the Atlantic hurricane season. The US has not been hit by a strong hurricane in three years.

"Those are the types of things that lull people to sleep. We want people vigilant," Hayes said.

NOAA has predicted 19 named storms this season. So far there have been seven, with none strengthening into hurricanes. NOAA predicts 7 to 10 to reach hurricane force -- an above-normal prediction.


Image Caption: Damage following the Joplin, Missouri tornado that touched down late in the afternoon of Sunday, May 22, 2011.  Credit: KOMU News/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)  


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