MIAMI (Reuters) - The United States has already tied its yearly record for billion-dollar weather disasters and the cumulative tab from floods, tornadoes and heat waves has hit $35 billion, the National Weather Service said on Wednesday.
And it's only August, with the bulk of the hurricane season still ahead.
"I don't think it takes a wizard to predict 2011 is likely to go down as one of the more extreme years for weather in history," National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes told journalists on a conference call.
The agency's parent organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, launched a campaign on Wednesday to better prepare Americans for violent weather.
There have so far been nine separate disasters this year that caused an economic loss of $1 billion or more in the United States, tying the record set in 2008, NOAA said. The most recent was the summer flooding along the Missouri and Souris rivers in the upper Midwest.
The "new reality" is that both the frequency and the cost of extreme weather are rising, making the nation more economically vulnerable and putting more lives and livelihoods at risk, Hayes said.
The number of U.S. natural disasters has tripled in the last 20 years and 2010 was a record breaker with about 250, according to property and casualty reinsurer Munich Reinsurance America.
Average thunderstorm losses have increased five-fold since 1980. For the first half of 2011 there have been $20 billion in thunderstorm losses, up from the previous three-year average of $10 billion, NOAA said.
The rising costs are due partly to demographics, Hayes said. The population is rising and there are more people and more buildings in environmentally vulnerable areas, such as coastal regions.
Asked if global warming was to blame for the rising frequency of wild weather, Hayes said that was "a research question" and that it would be difficult to link any one severe season to overall climate change.
NOAA's effort to make America "weather-ready" is aimed at producing earlier, more precise warnings and helping people understand what to do to protect themselves, Hayes said.
In the current fiscal climate, it mainly focuses on already-budgeted items such as upgrading the weather radar system and on better coordination among existing agencies.
For example, one program aims to have rainfall forecasters work more closely with the agencies that build and maintain levees and operate flood-control canals.
Other steps include:
-Helping communities stage disaster preparedness drills.
-Dispatching specially trained meteorologists to emergency response centers during disasters such as wildfires.
-Asking behavioral scientists for advice on how to improve the wording of advisories so that the general public understands them, and how to deter risky behavior such as driving onto flooded roads.
-Expanding the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and chatrooms to help spread weather warnings.
NOAA's warning was timed with the advent of what is traditionally the busiest part of the June-through-November Atlantic hurricane season. The United States has not been hit by a hurricane in three years.
"Those are the types of things that lull people to sleep. We want people vigilant," Hayes said.
NOAA has predicted there will be as many as 19 tropical storms this year. So far there have been seven, but none have strengthened into hurricanes. Only one, Tropical Storm Don, came ashore in the United States but it quickly fizzled over the Texas coast without delivering the rain that is badly needed in the parched state.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman