By Kurtis Alexander
Last year's devastating floods and fires in California combined with hurricanes and other natural disasters to wreak unprecedented financial damage on the United States, the federal government reported Monday.
The nation endured 16 weather and climate events that inflicted $1 billion or more apiece in damage in 2017, tying 2011 for the most 10-digit calamities in a year and setting an annual total-cost record of $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The natural disasters resulted in 362 deaths.
As federal aid for disasters is stretched and places from Puerto Rico to the Wine Country struggle to rebuild, the new report raises questions about what can be done to minimize the growing impact of bad weather -- some of which is being made worse by climate change.
"If we're just hoping for fewer disasters, we can forget about it. There's going to be more disaster and it's going to be worse," said Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, which helps communities evaluate and respond to climate change and other risks. "I don't know where the money is going to come from, but we're going to have to get it."
The cost of last year's wildfires in the West, including October's blazes in the North Bay, hit $18 billion, three times the previous single-year record for fire damage, according to the NOAA report. Fifty-four people died in fires nationwide, 44 of them in Northern California.
California also reeled from big storms and flooding in February, contributing to the partial collapse of the spillway at Oroville Dam and a flood on San Jose's Coyote Creek that forced the evacuations of 14,000 people. In addition, the San Diego area sustained heavy wind damage in January when a series of storms struck the southern tier of the United States. Each of the weather events caused slightly more than $1 billion in damage, federal officials said.
Among the 16 big-ticket disasters in 2017, hurricanes exacted the greatest toll, with $265 billion in damage, according to the report. The death count from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which smacked the Southeast and U.S. territories in the Caribbean in August and September, was 251.
Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana was the worst of the three, going down as the second most destructive U.S. storm since reliable tracking of weather and climate damage began in 1980. At $125 billion, Harvey's devastation trails only Hurricane Katrina's in 2005.
NOAA's annual climate update did not attempt to assign blame for last year's high disaster toll. Federal scientists merely suggested possible factors, including global warming, a La Niña weather pattern and the increased vulnerability of communities to weather events.
The report, however, highlights the stark increase in temperatures that most scientists attribute to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and blame for the uptick in extreme weather.
Last year was the nation's third-warmest since record keeping began in 1895, according to NOAA. Every state except Hawaii saw an above-average annual temperature for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, the number of billion-dollar disasters has risen since 1980, when there were three, the report shows.
Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University, said there's no doubt that the warming climate is contributing to the damage totals.
"We know that the fuel available for wildfires has been on the increase in the West, and global warming is responsible for that," he said. "Likewise with tropical cyclones, we know that with sea level rise, due to climate change, there is greater surge flooding."
Diffenbaugh added, "The more emissions of greenhouse gases that occur, the more extreme events will intensify."
Congress is deliberating one of its largest-ever disaster packages to speed recovery in areas hit hard last year. The $81 billion aid bill, which passed the House last month but stalled in the Senate, would provide infrastructure repairs, housing and other relief to communities in California, Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration, meanwhile, has deployed more workers than in any other year but 2005, when Katrina flooded New Orleans. More than 1,800 emergency personnel have helped with hurricanes while 180 have assisted with the California wildfires, the agency said.
In Sonoma and Napa counties, the disaster workers are removing debris from burned homes and businesses, helping rebuild roads, bridges and water systems, and providing temporary housing.
But even with that mobilization, said Columbia's Redlener, the need for emergency services far surpasses supply.
The long-term goal, Redlener said, is for communities to become more resilient to extreme weather by building sturdier homes and infrastructure. The problem, he added, is a lack of money and commitment from the federal government.
"We're really at a crossroads here, but the Trump administration doesn't seem to get what we need to do," Redlener said, noting the president's denial of human-caused climate change and its effects. "I'm just very worried."
(c)2018 the San Francisco Chronicle