The Washington Post

Was 2011 the year of disasters?

Hurricane Irene. The earthquake in Washington. Droughts and wildfires in Texas, and dust storms in Phoenix. Twisters in Joplin, Mo., and in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A snowmageddon in Chicago and the Missouri River floods. And that’s just in America.

Will 2011 be remembered as the year of disasters?

View Photo Gallery: From deadly blizzards to a devastating tsunami, 2011 brought some of the most extreme natural disasters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) thinks so, announcing Thursday that this year’s weather was the most extreme on record, at least financially, with 12 natural disasters causing $1 billion or more in damage each . That’s more billion-dollar catastrophes in one year than the U.S. saw in the entire decade of the 1980s, even if you factor in inflation.

Outside the U.S., 2011 was equally disastrous. Japan faced an earthquake and tsunami of devastating proportions. New Zealand had a giant quake, the worst natural disaster in 80 years. Australia had a biblical flood. The worst drought in Africa in 60 years endangered millions of lives. Turkey’s quake was followed by an unusual, fatal cold, and Thailand in parts is still flooded.

During the two short weeks of the Durban climate talks earlier this month, Think Progress reports that eight climate disasters occurred.

Back in May, before Irene was even a gathering storm, The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach predicted in Slate that this would be the “century of disasters”:

In the same way that the 20th century was the century of world wars, genocide, and grinding ideological conflict, the 21st will be the century of natural disasters and technological crises and unholy combinations of the two. It'll be the century when the things that we count on to go right will, for whatever reason, go wrong.

So far, that certainly seems to be true. And the disasters are taking a hefty body count with them — 646 people died in the U.S. from natural disasters this year.

In addition to urging better government regulation, Achenbach advises that we all get a disaster plan, be it buying batteries or water or better understanding how the infrastructure around us works.

“Having done that,” he writes, “go on about your lives, pursuing happiness on a planet that, though sometimes dangerous, is by far the best one we’ve got.”


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