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Cost of natural disasters increasing, disaster-related deaths decreasing

Monday, January 8th, 2018

In 2017, the United States faced its most expensive hurricane season in U.S. history, costing an estimated 200 billion dollars total, according to National Geographic. This was also the first hurricane season that included three Atlantic hurricanes that reached Category 4 intensity or stronger. Hurricane Harvey hit Texas on Aug. 25; Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys on Sept. 10; and Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

In the wake of these three particularly devastating disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dealt with the uniquely challenging feat of funding and planning disaster relief for all of them at the same time. “I’m not aware of any time in FEMA’s history where they’ve had to handle three major disasters at once,” said Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, Emily Atkin writes for the New Republic.

FEMA decides how much money to allocate for the Disaster Relief Fund based on average yearly cost for previous disasters. Before Hurricane Harvey hit, FEMA administrator Brock Long indicated he believed funds would be sufficient to help disaster victims as long as another disaster doesn’t occur. However, two more disasters happened soon after that.

The US is not the only country facing astronomical costs for more natural disasters than usual. The number of natural disasters plaguing the world has risen significantly in the past 40 years, and the cost to rebuild and recover after the disasters has increased as well, according to a study by World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group.

According to the study:

  • Worldwide disaster cost was 15 times higher in the 1990s, with $652 billion in material losses, than it was in the 1950s.
  • Fewer than 100 natural disasters occurred in 1975, and more than 400 occurred in 2005.
  • Natural disasters affected about 2.6 billion people from 1996 to 2006 as opposed to 1.6 billion people from 1986 to 1996.

Why is the cost for bouncing back from a natural disaster getting higher and higher? It may be because overall, the world is getting richer. “We’re seeing ever-larger losses simply because we have more to lose—when an earthquake or a flood occurs, more stuff gets damaged,” Roger Pielke, Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, writes for Five Thirty Eight.

The good news is that natural disaster-related deaths are decreasing overall. “The absolute total of deaths through natural catastrophes has remained reasonably constant with a slight decrease,” Dr. James Daniell, risk engineer from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology said. “Around 50,000 people on average die each year. However, relative to population, death tolls have decreased significantly from 1900-2015.” Better planning, warnings and preventive measures have helped decrease natural disaster-related deaths, he said.

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