Report: 243 million Americans affected by weather disasters since 2007

April 9, 2013

Drought, record heat and Hurricane Sandy were among the major weather-related disasters that affected the United States in 2012. But just how many Americans felt the impact of these events? A newly released report from the Environment America Research and Policy Center says 243 million people – nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population – live in counties that experienced at least one weather-related disaster since 2007.

U.S. counties federally declared disaster areas due to extreme weather, 2007-2012. (Environment America)
U.S. counties federally declared disaster areas due to extreme weather, 2007-2012. (Environment America)

The report, titled “In the Path of the Storm,” is based on six years of county-level disaster declaration data gathered from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It offers a comprehensive overview of which regions in the U.S. are most vulnerable to various types of severe weather, including hurricanes, floods, drought, tornadoes and winter storms. An interactive online map allows the public to learn more about the types of disasters that have occurred in individual counties across the country.

Among some of the report’s major findings:

Number of Americans living in counties declared federal disaster areas due to severe weather-related events. (Data source: Environment America)
Number of Americans living in counties declared federal disaster areas due to severe weather-related events. (Data source: Environment America)
  • About 4 out of 5 Americans live in counties that have been declared federal disaster areas in the past six years.
  • In 2012, the U.S. recorded 11 weather disasters causing economic losses of $1 billion or more, including Hurricane Sandy.
  • Sandy claimed 72 lives in the Northeast and caused over $70 billion in damages, making it the costliest hurricane ever to hit the East Coast and the costliest weather disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
  • 77 million Americans live in counties that experienced federally declared weather-related disasters in 2012 alone.
  • 19 million Americans live in counties that have averaged one or more such weather-related disasters per year since 2007.

While every state but South Carolina has had at least one county declared a federal disaster area, the Plains states are the most disaster-prone. In Oklahoma, for example, five of the state’s counties have each declared 10 or more weather-related disasters in the past six years.

Clickable interactive map showing number of weather-related disasters by county during the 2007-2012 period. (Environment America)
Interactive map showing number of weather-related disasters in Washington, D.C. during the 2007-2012 period. (Environment America)

By shedding light on these numbers, Environment America hopes to raise public awareness about the the nation’s vulnerability to climate change and the possibility of more frequent extreme weather events in the coming decades.

The report reaffirms scientific research that shows the U.S. is already experiencing greater extremes in precipitation and will likely see an increase in the number of heat waves and severe storms as Earth’s climate warms. In 2012, the U.S. experienced its hottest year on record and worst drought in more than 50 years.

“Extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that we’ll see even more extreme weather in the future,” says Nathan Willcox, co-author of the report and global warming program director at Environment America.

Willcox is calling upon local, state, and federal leaders to seek further reductions in CO2 emissions and invest in more renewable energy projects to reduce the impact of global-warming induced severe weather events.

In particular, the report denounces further development in carbon-rich fuels such as tar sands, and urges the Obama administration to reject construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the central United States.

Meanwhile, Environment America is lauding state-based and regional efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), comprised of nine northeastern states. Two months ago, all nine members pledged steeper cuts in carbon emissions from power plants, which would result in a 20 percent reduction over the next decade.

“In the wake of Winter Storm Nemo [Feb. 2013 Nor'easter], Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene, we need all of the Northeast to double down on its commitment to lead the nation in reducing the pollution that’s warming the planet and changing our climate,” said Willcox.

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Matt Rogers · April 9, 2013