Hurricane Irene left a ravaged Highway 12, the main road connecting Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the North Carolina mainland, 29 August 2011. Jose Luis Magana / Reuters

By Mara Lee, Hartford Courant
8 December 2011

Reporting from Hartford, Conn.— The United States had a dozen weather disasters that each caused at least $1 billion in damages in 2011, the greatest frequency of severe weather that caused costly losses in more than 30 years of federal government tracking.

However, even with the number of events, the total losses this year from the storms, flooding, and droughts is $52 billion, not even close to the most expensive year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina alone cost $145 billion in today's dollars. It was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history and, with more than 1,800 deaths, the highest fatality toll since a 1928 hurricane in south Florida.

The disasters in 2011 caused more than 600 deaths, the agency said. The Groundhog Day blizzard, Hurricane Irene, many tornadoes and drought-fueled wildfires in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona crossed the $1-billion threshold.

The increase in losses from hurricanes has more to do with population growth and increased home building near beaches than it does with climate change, scientists from NOAA say.

But, they added, "there is evidence that climate change may affect the frequency of certain extreme weather events. An increase in population and development in flood plains, along with an increase in heavy rain events in the U.S. during the past 50 years, have gradually increased the economic losses due to flooding. If the climate continues to warm, the increase in heavy rain events is likely to continue. There are projections that the incidence of extreme droughts will increase if the climate warms throughout the 21st century."

About 343 tornadoes in 13 states in late April was the most costly disaster, with total losses greater than $10.2 billion and insured losses of $7.3 billion. Tuscaloosa, Ala., was badly hit, and 240 of the 321 deaths were in Alabama.

Close behind was a drought and heat wave across Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, southern Kansas and western Louisiana. The total direct losses to crops, livestock and timber have approached $10 billion; both direct and total economic losses will rise as the drought continues.

The weather fueled wildfires across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, with losses over $1 billion from just the fires.

Hurricane Irene cost more than $7.3 billion in damages and resulted in 45 deaths.

The Joplin tornado in Missouri was the deadliest single tornado in 61 years, with 160 deaths. That tornado, along with 179 others across 15 states in late May, cost $9.1 billion, with $6.5 billion in insured losses.

2011 saw record number of high-cost weather disasters

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