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How Much Did Extreme Weather Cost Iowa This Year?

The state’s Individual Disaster Assistance Grant Program has paid $227,675 in response to storm damage. FEMA estimated the state’s spring flood damage at $6.3 million. As of Dec. 4, crop insurers had paid out more than $248 million due to drought.

This year, twisters swirled down from ominous Iowa skies, scraping jagged paths across communities and landscapes. Treacherous winds shoved trees, structures and power lines to the ground; thunderstorms tossed hail and rain recklessly.

The Mississippi River swelled with extra flow and bled into homes and businesses. Just months later, rivers faltered amid drought as farmers and water providers struggled to maintain their livelihoods.

During the summer months, extreme heat scalded crops and livestock and residents across Iowa. And, during the winter, ice storms and snow painted the state pale.

Iowa experienced a spectrum of weather in 2023, and some events fell within the "extreme" category — broadly defined as weather events that don't happen often, said state climatologist Justin Glisan. Some events occur fast, like the 2020 derecho, for example; others can be slow-moving, like the 2008 floods. Climate change is making extreme weather even more extreme in Iowa and beyond.

Those extreme weather events — and, most importantly, their impacts to Iowans — add up. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported six separate billion-dollar disaster events that touched Iowa so far this year.

Between flooding, drought, extreme heat, hail, tornadoes and more, The Gazette calculated tens of millions of dollars worth of financial impacts in Iowa related to extreme weather in 2023 alone. Some of that comes in the form of state or federal disaster assistance; some appears as crop insurance payouts; some arise from infrastructure updates in the face of a changing climate.

The calculations don't fully represent the variety and magnitude of costs of extreme weather to Iowa. But they show a slice of that price tag — one that's likely to continue increasing with climate change.

Flooding and Other Natural Disasters

Gov. Kim Reynolds has issued 37 disaster proclamations for Iowa in 2023 so far. Seventeen of those were related to severe weather or flooding. The proclamations allow state resources, like supplies and equipment, to be activated for impacted areas.

So far, they have resulted in nearly $644,000 paid out through the Iowa Individual Disaster Assistance Grant Program, which provides eligible households funding for temporary housing, food assistance, personal property and home repair.

The disasters resulting in the most grant payouts were:

— Destructive winds, hail and tornadoes across east-central Iowa on May 7 that prompted $227,675 in grants.

— Severe storms and a derecho that hit southern Iowa on June 29, prompting $171,814 in grants.

— A widespread tornado outbreak across Eastern Iowa on March 31 that prompted $149,391 in grants.

Residents also can self-report property damages to the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Of the 92 reports submitted to the survey thus far this year, 60 were due to tornadoes; 17 were due to severe storms; four were due to a derecho; one was due to flooding; and the remaining 10 were listed as "other." Twenty submissions listed their damage level as destroyed, 17 listed major damages and 17 listed minor damages or some level of impact to the properties. Thirty-eight didn't indicate a damage level.

The Iowa Individual Disaster Assistance Grant Program forked out about $18,500 after the Mississippi River hopped its banks last spring in Eastern Iowa. President Joe Biden declared the flooding a federal disaster, authorizing federal assistance to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's preliminary damage assessment report of the disaster placed cost estimates at about $6.3 million. Damage to water control facilities was listed as the primary impact. Jackson County was hardest, followed by Allamakee and Scott counties. Granted public assistance dollars from FEMA totaled just over $395,000.

That's not much in the context of Iowa's historical flood damages, said Witold Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center.

From 1999 to 2016, about $1.9 billion was granted to Iowa between hundreds of flood-related FEMA disaster declarations. In the last 30 years, the state has suffered more than $13 billion in direct property losses and $4.1 billion in direct crop losses from flooding.

"This was a well-forecasted flood," he said about this year's Mississippi River flooding. "The most important thing is that there was not much (flooding) going on in the interior rivers in Iowa," so they couldn't dump more water into the rising Mississippi.

Impacts to Crops, Livestock

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the federal crop insurance program, a public-private partnership that offers farmers financial protection against crop losses or revenue declines. Farmers pay premiums to get insured, of which taxpayers subsidize about two-thirds on average. Producers are then paid indemnities to recoup their losses.

Causes of crop loss include disease, drops in commodity prices and adverse weather like drought, flooding, hail, heat and freezes. Between 2001 and 2022, four of the five most costly causes nationally were related to weather.

Iowa has had drought somewhere in the state for 179 weeks — or, since July 2020, Glisan said. Eight months out of the previous 11 have seen below-average rainfall. The worst drought concentrated in east-central Iowa in the late summer, throwing Linn and Benton counties and their crops into their record-driest conditions.

Elsewhere in the state, crop yields look better than expected. Yet, as of Dec. 4, Iowan crop insurance payouts added up to more than $248 million for 2023 so far, according to federal data. That's more than double 2022's $90 million in payouts in a similar time frame, and more than six times 2021's $41 million.

This year's low crop prices were the driving force for crop insurance payouts as farmers tried to protect their revenues, said Chad Hart, an economist and crop markets specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. But drought conditions contributed, too, especially in Eastern Iowa.

"Tools like crop insurance are definitely capturing the impact as our climate is changing," he said, along with adjustments to the insurance programs themselves. For example, Iowa's earliest planting dates allowed under crop insurance policies for corn and soybeans were moved even earlier in the year for 2023. "They're being adjusted to reflect the changing climatic conditions that's around agriculture right now."

Other agricultural sectors took hits from this year's drought and extreme heat, including Iowa's livestock industry.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15, there were at least 4,519 Iowa producer-reported livestock losses from qualifying natural disaster events, as reported through the USDA Livestock Indemnity Program. Eligible events include hail, tornadoes, extreme heat and straight-line winds.

Livestock foraging crops degraded by extreme weather this year, like rye grass and pastures with native plants, were also eligible for compensation through the USDA.

"This shows that ... arguably this combination of (USDA programs) really represents the safety net" for farmers amid forces like extreme weather, Hart said.

Continued Costs of Climate Adaptation

As the climate changes, it puts pressure on existing infrastructure like stormwater infrastructure, water and wastewater treatment facilities, the power grid and water suppliers. That infrastructure, sometimes decades old, was built to withstand climate conditions that are now outdated.

Projects across the state are now aiming to update those systems to protect against current conditions — or even looking to future climate projections — before the next disaster hits.

"Extremes are becoming more extreme at a faster pace," Glisan said. "They're outpacing the infrastructure improvements that we're making. That goes for across the United States."

Climate adaptation projects typically come with a large price tag, with funding that comes from several sources and stretches over several years. Their construction can span years, with extra additions and funds sprinkled throughout, and their benefits hopefully span decades.

There are several federal funding opportunities offered to states, tribes and territories, which can then provide subgrants to local governments for pre-disaster mitigation projects. So far this year, the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has offered:

— Thirty-one subgrants totaling about $30.4 million through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

— Three subgrants totaling $4.1 million through the Legislative Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program.

— Two subgrants totaling about $193,000 through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program.

"The infrastructure that's built already is 30 to 40 years out of date, especially on the flood mitigation side," Glisan said. "As we're behind infrastructure-wise, it's going to become more costly when we do have these (extreme) events. ... What we have now is not prepared for what the projections are showing."

Impacts to Personal Health

Iowa residents also face health-related impacts from extreme weather, which can increase their medical costs.

There were at least eight reported injuries between the year's several bouts of severe weather, according to reports from the National Weather Services' Quad Cities and Des Moines bureaus.

Three people were trapped in a Clinton County house that collapsed in Grand Mound during the March 31 tornado outbreak; one person was transported to the hospital with minor injuries. At least three injuries were reported during the same outbreak in Keokuk County, where an EF-4 tornado damaged several homes, tossed cars through the air and knocked over a cellphone tower. Several crashes were reported during the March 25 winter storm that dumped up to 8 inches of snow in Eastern Iowa.

After the hottest heat of this summer, when feels-like temperatures reached 120 degrees in Eastern Iowa, National EMS Information System surveillance showed more 911 calls for heat-related illness and injury in Linn County than average. Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States. There were 23 heat-related deaths reported in Iowa from 2018 to 2022, one of which occurred in Linn County.

This summer was also punctuated by smoke descending from raging wildfires in Canada. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recorded 162 exceedances of national air quality standards through Oct. 1. It also issued about 10 air quality advisories this summer, said John Gering, leader of the department's ambient air monitoring unit.

As the climate continues to change and test our environments, economies and protections, it will come with more health impacts, Glisan said.

Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

(c)2023 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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