The Unluckiest Year – So Far

Damage from the May 22 Joplin tornado


An unprecedented number of tornadoes, fires, storms, hurricanes and floods contributed to a record 14 weather and climate disasters in 2011, making it a year with the most number of natural calamities exceeding $1 billion: 14.  The previous record had been 9 in 2008.  The costliest year on record is 2005, which incurred $160 billion.  Most of that was due to Hurricane Katrina with $143.9 billion.  Actual dollar estimates of some 2011 disasters are still being tabulated, so the numbers could change.  But so far, total damage estimates put the figure at $55 billion.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, half of the year’s billion-dollar events were tornadoes; 6 of those at the EF5 level, the highest on the Enhanced Fujita scale.  The tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri on May 22, for example, cost $2.8 billion and killed 161 people.  It was the deadliest single tornado strike in the U.S. since modern record-keeping began.  But, that was just 1 of more than 850 confirmed tornadoes in 2011 with a total cost of $28.7 billion and 551 fatalities.

Texas, Arizona and New México saw the worst wildfires in 2011, with 3 million+; 500,000 and 150,000 acres burned, respectively.  The year ended with 84% of the Southern plains in some stage of drought.

The U.S. escaped the wrath of several tropical storms and hurricanes (usually the deadliest and most expensive disasters) that formed in the Atlantic.  But, Hurricane Irene pounded the Northeast with heavy rains; while Tropical Storm Lee did the same to the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle.

Last year may have just been a fluke from a climatological standpoint, so scientists can’t be certain if this is a new trend.  Instruments used to track weather systems have become more refined in recent years.  Regardless, it’s still fascinating – and frightening – not knowing what to expect in years to come.

Damage from Hurricane Irene on Route 100 in Killington, VT.


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