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2012 another bad year for U.S. disasters, and it may get worse

December 24, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Superstorm Sandy knocks out power to much of Lower Manhattan. It was one of 11 billion-dollar natural disasters to hit the U.S. in 2012.
Superstorm Sandy knocks out power to much of Lower Manhattan. It was one… (Karly Domb Sadof / Associated…)

Tornadoes and wildfires. Droughts and hurricanes. The United States saw almost every sort of calamity this year as 11 billion-dollar natural disasters struck the country.

Superstorm Sandy hit New York, ruined parts of the New Jersey coast and closed the New York Stock Exchange  for two straight days -- the first time such a shutdown had happened since 1888. The country suffered its worst drought since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

With the year coming to a close, 2012 looks like it won't beat last year for the number of separate billion-dollar disasters that traumatized various parts of the country: 2011 saw 14 massive calamities, a record.

But 2012's disasters killed 349 people in the U.S. and will almost certainly have caused more than $60 billion in overall damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That tab would surpass the cost of 2011's top disasters. Swiss Re, a leading catastrophe reinsurance company, put overall losses from natural and man-made disasters in the U.S. at $140 billion in 2012.

Experts say Americans -- and our neighbors -- should expect things to get worse, with climate change likely bringing more (and more extreme) heat waves, droughts, floods and possibly hurricanes.

"Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America," Munich Re, the world largest reinsurer, said in an October report intended to advise underwriters about the risks of insuring Americans against disaster.

Over the past three decades, weather disasters have caused more than $1 trillion in damage and 30,000 fatalities in North America, the report said. Part of the problem is the large continent has no east-west mountain range to break up weather patterns, which has meant that North America sees every kind of natural disaster.

The continent is like the rest of the world in that the number of weather disasters has increased in the past three decades. But according to Munich Re, North America has seen the greatest increase in weather disasters compared with other continents, with five times more since 1980. (Asia ranked No. 2, with a fourfold increase, and South America ranked last with a 50% increase.)

Peter Höppe, a chief risk researcher for Munich Re, said the company's insurance data, compared against meteorological data, demonstrated for the first time this year that climate change was having an effect on disaster losses.

"Previously, there had not been such a strong chain of evidence," Höppe said in the October report. "If the first effects of climate change are already perceptible, all alerts and measures against it have become even more pressing."

NOAA  estimated it would take months for the full cost of 2012's disasters to be known. 2005 remains the worst year on record, in which a series of hurricanes -- including Hurricane Katrina -- caused more than $187 billion in damage, NOAA said. 

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