‘They are not slowing down’: The rise of billion-dollar disasters

One battered N.C. community illustrates how summer, fueled in part by climate change, is proving an especially perilous and costly season

Flash flooding last summer washed out parts of Laurel Bank Campground in Cruso, N.C., leaving four dead. Almost a year later, residents are still contending with piles of debris.

CRUSO, N.C. — A year after the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred dumped a foot of rain on parts of this mountain community, after the Pigeon River rose and raged and destroyed nearly everything in its path, the scars remain around every bend.

Sherrie Lynn McArthur, owner of Laurel Bank Campground, is still surrounded by towering piles of mangled metal campers, appliances and other debris — a daily reminder of the catastrophe where four people perished in a flash flood that leveled a spot vacationers had flocked to for a half century.

“Disasters happen,” she said on a recent evening as she surveyed the destruction. “But people don’t know that it lasts for more than a week or a month.”

In this swath of western North Carolina, dozens of bridges were damaged and some wiped out altogether. Scores of homes were destroyed, and hundreds more left in disrepair. The state allocated nearly $125 million for recovery, including funds to help displaced families and compensate for lost crops. The federal government has spent millions more to help homeowners and renters, as well as area business owners and local cleanup efforts.

Teams conduct search and rescue operations on Aug. 19, 2021, in Canton, N.C., after heavy rainfall devastated the area. (Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) A shed sits on top of a car along the East Fork Pigeon River in Cruso in August 2021. (Travis Long/News & Observer/AP) Emergency personnel work in Cruso in August 2021. (Travis Long/News & Observer/AP)

Tropical Storm Fred and its aftermath became merely one of the 20 “billion-dollar” weather and climate disasters tracked by the U.S. government last year — a collection of calamities that cost the nation an estimated $145 billion and killed nearly 700 people.

“They are not slowing down,” said Adam Smith, the U.S. government’s lead scientist for analyzing billion-dollar disasters.

This mounting toll, which scientists and government officials say is driven in part because the world is warming, is forcing hard questions about who bears the burden of paying for them and how the nation can better prepare for what lies ahead. Ordinary Americans, often without adequate insurance, and local governments alike are ill-prepared for the sudden financial shocks such disasters can inflict. And elected leaders are scrambling to reinforce aging infrastructure built not only for a different century, but also for an earlier era of risks.

While weather disasters strike the United States every year, the numbers show that summer is proving prone to some of the most costly annual disasters, including powerful hurricanes, seemingly endless droughts, sprawling wildfires and torrential rainstorms that fuel the sort of flooding St. Louis and eastern Kentucky have recently endured.

Summers are seeing some of the

most costly weather disasters

Spring

Hurricane

Laura

$26.0b

Hurricane

Harvey

$148.8b

Summer

Tropical

Storm Fred

$1.4 billion

Fall

Winter

1980

2000

2020

Note: Weather disasters are grouped into

astronomical seasons by start date.

Source: NOAA

NAEMA AHMED/THE WASHINGTON POST

Summers are seeing some of the

most costly weather disasters

Spring

Hurricane Laura

$26.0 billion

Hurricane Harvey

$148.8 billion

Summer

Tropical

Storm Fred

$1.4 billion

Fall

Winter

1980

1990

2000

2010

2020

Note: Weather disasters are grouped into

astronomical seasons by start date.

Source: NOAA

NAEMA AHMED/THE WASHINGTON POST

Summers are seeing some of the most costly weather disasters

Spring

Tropical

Storm Fred

$1.4 billion

Hurricane Laura

$26.0 billion

Summer

Hurricane Harvey

$148.8 billion

Hurricane Ida

$78.7 billion

Fall

Winter

1980

1990

2000

2010

2020

Note: Weather disasters are grouped into astronomical seasons by start date.

Source: NOAA

NAEMA AHMED/THE WASHINGTON POST

Over the past two years, for instance, the summer brought two catastrophic events — Hurricane Ida and Hurricane Laura — that together caused more than $100 billion in damage and killed at least 138 people.

During summer in particular, many communities have had to grapple with compound, or cascading, disasters that hit in rapid succession. For instance, parts of California have seen wildfires followed by heavy rain and mudslides. A heat wave that descended after Hurricane Ida had knocked out power last summer left already vulnerable residents in Louisiana at more risk.

Even as such threats rise, Americans continue to flock to vulnerable places.

According to the U.S. Census, people have continued to move in droves to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where seas are rising and hurricanes are intensifying. They have headed to California and other parts of the West, within reach of devastating wildfires.

The unprecedented flooding that ravaged this verdant corner of the Blue Ridge Mountains last August barely registered on a national scale. But it underscored how even disasters that don’t wreak havoc across large geographic areas can inflict profound consequences long after they are gone. As such events happen more often, other vulnerable and unsuspecting communities are likely to face similar tragedies.

“Here’s the news flash: We’re not going to be the last small town that’s going to see far from a normal amount of flooding,” said Zeb Smathers, mayor of nearby Canton.

‘The 800-pound gorilla’

A dozen miles from where the worst of the flooding took place in western North Carolina last summer, Smith has worked more than a decade as a scientist for NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

In the upstairs office at his home west of Asheville, an unmistakable pattern has unfolded in his spreadsheets.

“The frequency and the cost of U.S. weather and climate disasters is increasing,” said Smith, who tracks disasters back to 1980, using an array of public and private data on everything from insurance payouts to infrastructure damage, to estimate their economic impact.

The data bear out that reality.

The United States has experienced an average of 7.7 billion-dollar disasters annually over the past four decades, Smith said. But in the past five years, that average has jumped to nearly 18 events each year.

2020 and 2021 saw the highest number of such disasters on record, with 22 and 20, respectively.

That list includes a wide range of catastrophes that span the country and the calendar, including a cold snap that crippled parts of Texas and hailstorms in Ohio. Spring has been an especially active time, the numbers show. But many of the most destructive and costly disasters of recent years also have come during summer — including massive Western wildfires, a crippling heat dome in the Pacific Northwest and devastating hurricanes such as Harvey, Maria and Ida.

“We’re starting to refer to the warm season as ‘danger season,’ because we’re seeing a lot of different kinds of climate hazards happening at the same time,” said Rachel Licker, principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Last year marked the seventh consecutive year in which the nation experienced 10 or more separate billion-dollar disasters. According to NOAA, the annual cost of such events has risen, with the 2010s proving “far costlier” than the several decades that preceded it.

There are numerous reasons that contribute to the troubling trend, according to researchers and public officials who have studied the changes, including ongoing development in disaster-prone areas and Americans’ push to live near the coasts.

But, Smith said, “Climate change is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

Boys jump into the Pigeon River near downtown Canton. Gavin Cryderman, Giovanni Rapisarda and Ronald Flores cool off in the river. Trout in the Pigeon River.

In places such as the Southeast, he said, a warming atmosphere means that the air holds more water vapor, fueling torrential rainstorms and more intense hurricanes that have led to catastrophic flooding. In the West, ongoing droughts have caused water shortages and created the conditions for megafires that burn across massive swaths of land.

“Climate change is enhancing some of the extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters,” he said.

Smith wrote in a NOAA analysis earlier this year that climate change is “supercharging the increasing frequency and intensity of certain types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters — most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons in the Western states, and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall becoming more common in the eastern states. Sea level rise is worsening hurricane storm surge flooding.”

In a recent assessment of the current state of climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change drew a similar conclusion. The panel wrote that as the planet grows warmer, more and potentially harsher events await.

“We will experience extreme events that are unprecedented, either in magnitude, frequency, timing or location,” IPCC authors wrote.

“The frequency of these unprecedented extreme events will rise with increasing global warming.”

‘It happened so quickly’

Travis Donaldson, emergency services director for Haywood County, was monitoring the heavy rainfall in the area that August afternoon last summer. He saw the water level rising along the Pigeon River near Cruso and Canton, not long before the calls for help began.

“It happened so quickly,” Donaldson said, adding, “It was like somebody flipped a light switch, and every phone line in the 911 center lit up.”

More than 70 people in the county were reported missing in the hours after the storm. Donaldson said emergency responders made more than two dozen documented rescues during the flooding, in addition to others undertaken by neighbors and bystanders.

Ultimately, 161 people from 85 families in Haywood County required long-term shelter, a spokeswoman said. Officials have removed 85,000 cubic yards of debris, and counting.

Then there is the emotional wreckage that remains.

Mike Graham, 63, in his restaurant Jukebox Junction & Soda Shoppe in Cruso, which was damaged by flooding in summer 2021. Flooding left the restaurant inoperable in 2021. It has acted as a command post for rescue squads.

Donella Pressley fled with her two young daughters, Cordelia and Elena, and an armful of family pictures just before a branch of the swelling river engulfed her house off Pisgah Drive. The family was able to return after more than seven months and numerous temporary moves, but even with her flooded floors and walls replaced, she lives with constant unease.

“I’ve just tried to brace my children that we do live by the river, and it’s possible this could happen to us again,” she said.

Bill Martin, a state rebuild coordinator for a Baptist organization that aids communities in the wake of disasters, has overseen a group that has renovated or rebuilt 73 homes, with many more to go.

“Mentally, it affected everybody up through here. Financially, it affected everybody, some more than others,” he said one afternoon as he put finishing touches of paint on a house off Cruso Road for a couple whose previous home was swept away by the river.

‘We are not prepared’

Adam Smith and others are quick to point out that while the warming climate has helped catalyze the rise in billion-dollar disasters, is it hardly the only factor.

“There’s no denying that the intensity of these disasters seems to be increasing, or the impacts seem to be increasing,” said William “Brock” Long, who headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Trump administration. “But you can’t just say it’s climate change.”

He pointed to the fact that Americans have continued to flock to vulnerable areas such as coastlines, river floodplains and areas with greater wildfire risks.

The feverish growth of recent years, particularly in places where building codes are not always sufficient to account for the risk of extreme events, has put more lives and more assets in harm’s way.

“We’re all talking about climate change and how bad it’s going to be, but the incentives aren’t there for communities to do the right thing,” said Long, now the executive chairman of Hagerty Consulting, an emergency management consulting firm. “Nobody ever got elected” on a platform of more stringent building codes, he said.

In addition, Long said that a “financial lack of resilience” exists in many places around the country, where many homeowners are uninsured or underinsured. It leaves them particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes.

“We’ve got some real social vulnerability issues we need to tackle,” Long said. “You’ve got a lack of insurance within the citizenry, a lack of insurance within our communities for public infrastructure. … Until that changes, these disasters are going to get worse, and FEMA faces an impossible task.”

Bill Martin and his team work on a new home near Cruso. Martin works for a relief group that is rebuilding and renovating homes that were damaged during the flooding in 2021. A new home being built by Martin's group will replace an aging mobile home that was destroyed.

Threats still loom this summer. While scientists have predicted another active hurricane season, no major storms have yet hit U.S. coasts. Government officials also have forecast “above normal” potential for serious wildfires in the weeks and months ahead.

The accompanying risks, from overwhelmed electric grids to a lack of adequate cooling among certain populations, abound.

“We are not prepared right now. These disasters are increasing in frequency, and the nature of them is they are really dangerous and deadly events,” Licker said. “We’re not even prepared now, let alone for future conditions.”

And often, the impacts of extreme weather hit hardest among those who can least afford it.

“The most vulnerable populations are often those who pay the highest relative costs to recovering from disasters,” Smith said. “They just don’t have the financial safety net to recover and build back to where they were previous to the disaster.”

‘It sure took a toll’

Some of those vulnerabilities are painfully clear in the mountains of North Carolina a year after the catastrophic flooding that struck here on a summer afternoon.

Roads, bridges and other infrastructure were overwhelmed by the deluge. Local officials are eager for dollars and plans to make municipal buildings, homes and businesses more resilient to the next flood; their wish list includes everything from early-warning systems to more robust storm water drainage.

Nick Scheuer, the town manager of Canton, estimated the municipality sustained $12 million to $15 million in damage. Police, fire and other town officials continue to work out of temporary facilities.

The town’s annual budget comes to about $11 million, he said, but “we spent close to $4 million just in remediation of flood damage to our facilities, temporary offices and replacing basic equipment necessary for operation.”

Homeowners without insurance — or without adequate insurance — are struggling to rebuild, in some cases raising their foundations eight feet or more above the ground. After the last round of severe flooding in the area in 2004, some residents in the region sold their homes through government programs, which aimed to create a buffer near the river.

Now, more flood-prone properties could be eligible for buyouts. But for the moment, residents here say they have relied on a patchwork of aid from federal flood insurance, FEMA assistance, state disaster funding, relief from nonprofit groups and the kindness of friends and neighbors.

“We’re still in the picking-up-our-teeth phase of this,” said Smathers, the Canton mayor. But, he added, “It could happen again this year — that’s the thing. It could happen next week.”

These days, Martin lives in an RV nearby, working alongside colleagues to repair and rebuild what he can. “I can hardly explain the devastation,” he said, comparing the damage to what he once witnessed after a powerful tornado struck Moore, Okla. “It sure took a toll.”

At the Laurel Bank Campground, McArthur still fights back tears most days as she roams the debris-cluttered landscape.

“You’ve never seen such angry water,” she recalled, as she stood alongside the river that was flowing peacefully again, for now. She spoke of the campers who lost their lives in the flash floods, and how their loss haunts her.

“I live their memory every day.”

A few miles away, Donella Pressley’s daughters were giggling and playing on the bunk bed in their revamped bedroom. In the kitchen, standing by the new countertops that had been installed days before, Pressley looked out her window toward the river, only half a football field away.

“It’s a very uneasy feeling when it rains,” she said, describing how only weeks earlier, she briefly evacuated again when a downpour caused the rising waters to pool in her yard.

For now, she said, “We will live. And carry on.”

Still, she keeps suitcases packed under her bed and in her daughters’ room, so that they can flee quickly if the next disaster comes.