WEATHER

Disasters in U.S.: An extreme and exhausting year

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The East Coast got a double-whammy in one week with a magnitude 5.8 earthquake followed by a drenching from Irene. If one place felt more besieged than others, it was tiny Mineral, Va., the epicenter of the quake, where Louisa County Fire Lt. Floyd Richard stared at the darkening sky before Irene and said, "What did WE do to Mother Nature to come through here like this."

Damage in Joplin, Missouri after a tornado struck. (Photo: Associated Press)

There are still four months to go, including September, the busiest month of the hurricane season. The Gulf Coast expected a soaking this weekend from Tropical Storm Lee and forecasters were watching Hurricane Katia slogging west in the Atlantic.

The insurance company Munich Re calculated that in the first six months of the year there have been 98 natural disasters in the United States, about double the average of the 1990s.

Even before Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on pace to obliterate the record for declared disasters issued by state, reflecting both the geographic breadth and frequency of America's problem-plagued year.

"If you weren't in a drought, you were drowning is what it came down to," Masters said.

Add to that, oppressive and unrelenting heat. Tens of thousands of daily weather records have been broken or tied and nearly 1,000 all-time records set, with most of them heat or rain related:

- Oklahoma set a record for hottest month ever in any state with July.

- Fairbanks, Alaska, hit 97 degrees on July 11, a record.

- Houston had a record string of 24 days in August with the thermometer over 100 degrees.

- Newark, N.J., set a record with 108 degrees, topping the old mark by 3 degrees.

Tornadoes this year hit medium-sized cities such as Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. The outbreaks affected 21 states, including unusual deadly twisters in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

"I think this year has really been extraordinary in terms of natural catastrophes," said Andreas Schrast, head of catastrophic perils for Swiss Re, another big insurer.

One of the most noticeable and troubling weather extremes was the record-high nighttime temperatures, said Tom Karl, director of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center. That shows that the country wasn't cooling off at all at night, which both the human body and crops need.

"These events are abnormal," Karl said. "But it's part of an ongoing trend we've seen since 1980."

Individual weather disasters so far can't be directly attributed to global warming, but it is a factor in the magnitude and the string of many of the extremes, Karl and other climate scientists say.

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