US weather disasters seen as sign of things to come

WASHINGTON, July 28 Fri Jul 29, 2011 1:47am EDT

WASHINGTON, July 28 (Reuters) - The United States is on a pace in 2011 to set a record for the cost of weather-related disasters and the trend is expected to worsen due to climate change, officials and scientists said on Thursday.

"The economic impact of severe weather events is only projected to grow," Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told a hearing. "We are not prepared. Our weather events are getting worse, catastrophic in fact."

The United States has seen eight weather disasters this year exceeding $1 billion each in damage, and the annual hurricane season has hardly begun, said Kathryn Sullivan, deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The record is nine in a single year, in 2008. But April alone saw separate tornado, wildfire, flood and drought disasters.

"Any one such a event in a year would be considered quite notable, and we had four in totally different hazard categories in the space of a month," Sullivan told Reuters.

The cost of weather-disaster damages has climbed past $32 billion for 2011, according to NOAA estimates.

The agency also projects that water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from record flooding will create the largest-ever "dead zone" from pollutants led by run-off from agricultural chemicals, threatening the $2.8 billion commercial and recreational fishing industries.

"Every weather event that happens nowadays takes place in the context of the changes in the background climate system," University of Illinois scientist Donald Wuebbles, who worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the panel.

"So nothing is entirely 'natural' anymore," he said.

Durbin said the trend of rising weather disasters is a major budget issue for Congress. Over the next 75 years, he said, cumulative exposure of the U.S. government budget to weather-disaster damages could reach $7 trillion.

Durbin said federal funding for disaster relief has been typically provided only as needed, rather than as regular budget projections. So weather disasters have been a budget disaster too, he said.

"In years with catastrophic events, we are left scrambling to fund relief programs," he said. "If we hope to put this country on a sustainable fiscal path, we need to be prepared to manage this increase in natural catastrophes." (Editing by Peter Bohan and Eric Beech)

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