A year that has rewritten many records linked to violent weather has added another record: the most billion-dollar disasters in American history.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week added two more billion-dollar disasters to this year’s list, bringing the total to 12.
That’s three more than 2008, and NOAA officials are still gathering damage figures for Tropical Storm Lee and the snowstorm that struck the northeastern United States just before Halloween.
The number of billion-dollar disasters nationally this year is “quite alarming,” said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita.
They have spanned the spectrum, from killer tornadoes in the Midwest and Southeast to massive flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to widespread drought and wildfires in the Southern Plains.
Kansas is included in half of the disasters: four tornado outbreaks, the flooding along the Missouri River and the southern Plains drought that saw Wichita set a record for most 100-degree days in a single year.
“Was 2011 an anomaly? Probably so,” Hayes said. “We just had a lot of populated areas that were affected this year, as opposed to other years.”
Violent weather this year has killed more than 1,000 people around the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. The 12 biggest disasters account for more than $52 billion in damage.
“It is pretty crazy to think about, in terms of the sheer amount of money” in damage caused, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. “With increased population, vulnerability increases by default. You have more people, more structures, more human enterprises at risk.
“We also know that with a warming climate, we’ve definitely seen an uptick in extreme precipitation events.”
But that doesn’t explain the deadliest year in decades for tornadoes, Carbin said. The 552 confirmed tornado deaths so far tie 1936 for second on the all-time list, trailing only 1925 – the year of the infamous Tri-State Tornado, which killed an estimated 695 people along a 219-mile path that spanned portions of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
April set a record for most tornadoes in a month with 748, and the 199 tornadoes on April 27 set a record for most in one day. There’s still a chance 2011 could set a record for most tornadoes in one year, Carbin said.
“This past year has been very difficult to get your mind around,” he said.
It’s silenced talk that technology and awareness had turned high death tolls from tornadoes into a thing of the past.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have been blase – or so confident, necessarily – that we had everything we needed in place to keep loss of life low,” Carbin said.
The atmospheric setup that spawned the 199 tornadoes on April 27 “was a relatively rare combination of ingredients, but certainly not unprecedented – not even unprecedented in the modern era,” Carbin said.
Research, he said, indicates the April 27 outbreak mirrors the Super Outbreak in April 1974 that spawned 148 tornadoes in 13 states, killing 330 people. And while history shows the atmosphere only generates that kind of outbreak every 30 to 50 years, Carbin said, that doesn’t mean residents and officials can let their guard down.
A La Nina – the name given to cooler-than-normal water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean – has taken hold this winter, and computer forecasting models indicate it will strengthen and persist through at least the first few months of 2012.
That’s just what happened last winter and early spring.
“It’s a bit worrisome,” Carbin said. “It does support the potential for a more active storm track through the Midwest and the South.”
That makes learning the lessons of 2011 all the more important.
“Maybe there’s a little bit more awareness now,” Carbin said. “That could certainly help to get people to do what they need to be safe.”
Contributing: Associated Press