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Extreme Cold Has Big Human Impact Despite Smaller Price Tag

The most expensive weather and climate disaster in 2023 was a drought and heat wave across the South and Midwest that cost $14.5 billion. But weather conditions that don’t cost billions, like extreme cold, still have major community impacts.

The United States experienced 28 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in 2023, surpassing the previous record of 22 in 2020. Nine of these events affected Illinois, with the most expensive in the nation being a drought and heat wave across the South and Midwest that cost $14.5 billion.

The total amount incurred nationwide was a staggering $92.9 billion, according to the latest update to an annual report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford said last year tied with 2011 for the most billion-dollar disasters in Illinois. But he cautioned against only paying attention to those disasters that cause this much monetary damage: Weather events that cost less can still have a tremendous human impact, such as the below-freezing wind chills blowing through the area.

“These are billion-dollar disasters, but that’s just how much economic damage they’ve caused; it’s not the lives they’ve uprooted,” Ford said. “So in the situation where the cold may not be as big of an impact on infrastructure and things like that, we see hundreds of people die across the Chicago area — and I’m just throwing out a number.”

Beyond concerns for the local unhoused population, the city is for the second year in a row contending with finding wintertime shelter for thousands of migrants. Because of the cold, Mayor Brandon Johnson postponed evictions until at least Jan. 22 for migrants staying in shelters who are due to leave the system. But with shelters at capacity, some migrants have had to find warmth in idling buses.

“And there’s a lot of smaller, maybe more localized events that caused a lot of problems or significant hardship that aren’t included,” Ford said. “I think about the May 1 dust storm that killed eight people right in central Illinois.”

Strong winds blew a massive dust cloud onto a stretch of Interstate 55 south of Springfield, which caused a 84-car pileup that killed eight and injured at least three dozen others.

Cook County scores relatively high — and highest in the state — on the billion-dollar report’s weather and climate hazard risk scale. For instance, its freeze risk is 70.75 out of 100. That’s almost five times the U.S. average risk score. Its winter storm risk score is 56.42 out of 100, four times the national average.

Similarly, Cook County is also between four and six times likelier to face risks of drought, flooding and severe storms than the rest of the country.

“A lot of folks, when they think about billion-dollar disasters, they think that California, Texas and Florida have the most, when they don’t,” Ford said. “It’s actually the Midwest, the Plains and the Southeast that have the most billion-dollar disasters. It’s just that when Florida gets a billion-dollar disaster it’s probably a hurricane, and it costs us $10 billion or $12 billion. When California gets one, it’s a series of wildfires that cost $20 billion.

“When we get a drought — like the drought of 2012, for example, (it) just blew all the records away because drought affects agriculture, and those numbers just skyrocket. And drought has potentially affected much larger areas than really any other disaster.”

Though it mostly affected the mid-South and Deep South, the drought was felt by those working in agricultural fields in Illinois. It caused abnormally dry conditions across most parts of Illinois and moderate drought in others beginning in May — Chicago’s driest May in 30 years — and worsening to severe in a few places between June and July, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

In a previous interview with the Tribune, farmer Rachael Smedberg said her hemp crops didn’t get any rain at the beginning of last year’s meteorological summer.

“And June is so critical for crop production; plants are super small, they don’t have established roots,” she said. “So the June drought was awful, not only for organic farmers, but row crop conventional farmers too — that’s soy and corn.”

But even as the state suffered from dry conditions, the year was punctuated by heavy rains: The other eight weather events in which Illinois was one of the hardest hit were all severe storms with “different flavors,” Ford said, including large hail, high winds and sometimes tornadoes. These storms caused damage to homes, vehicles, businesses and agricultural assets.

A particularly severe storm during Chicago’s first NASCAR street race on July 1 and 2 dropped up to 9 inches of precipitation on some parts of the city, its suburbs and Cook County. Damages in Missouri, Indiana and Illinois due to the storms that weekend amounted to $1.9 billion.

“The damage from the flooding, just in Chicago alone, was nearly a billion dollars,” Ford said. “That that, in and of itself, was almost a billion-dollar disaster, was truly something.”

As area basements, streets and sidewalks flooded, counties across the state received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance in response to local, state and federal major disaster declarations.

Ford said the upward trend in the number of billion-dollar disasters hitting the country can be partly attributed to climate change, and partly to humanity’s increased exposure risk.

“The development over the last 40, 50 years across the United States, and more locally in the Chicagoland area, has been one of sprawl development,” he explained. “As population grows, or even (as) population changes, we see an expansion of the actual size, the physical geographic size of development. And so what that means is that with more people and more things, storms that happen — even without the effect of climate change — will cause more damage.”

So, besides addressing the root causes of climate change, specifically greenhouse gas emissions, Ford said policy must also focus on reducing human vulnerability to weather and climate disasters.

“We’ve developed our areas, our agricultural systems, our urban systems, our transportation systems in a way that isn’t really very resilient,” he said. “We need to be making sure that we’re not introducing new exposure risks with the way that we’re developing, the way that we’re doing things.”

©2024 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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