With a rampaging pandemic having claimed more than 2 million lives worldwide in the last year (with over 400,000 in the United States alone), it can be easy to overlook what a disaster the last twelve months have been outside of COVID. While nowhere near as deadly in terms of human life, natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires and floods resulted in around 8,200 global deaths and over $210 billion in monetary losses, an increase of 26.5% on 2019. The United States, for its part, made up a lopsided percentage of those two statistics. Thankfully, the death toll from the various hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes only accounted for 3% of the global total (262). However, the financial damage of over $95 billion made up almost half of the worldwide amount.
An Expensive and Deadly Year
In a country as large and geographically varied as the United States, natural disasters are just a fact of life. And despite how huge the number sounds, billion-dollar events are actually pretty common. In fact, since the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) started tracking weather and climate disasters in 1980, the U.S. has experienced an average of 7 per year in CPI-adjusted terms.
But then 2020 arrived.
The calamity that was last year saw a record-shattering 22 billion-dollar disasters, with vast swaths of the country affected. Wildfires burned millions of acres in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Droughts and record temperatures seared the southwest (Phoenix alone suffered a record 144 days north of 100 degrees). Tornadoes smashed their way through Dixie Alley with Tennessee being especially hard hit. Tropical cyclones and hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast with such regularity that we ran out of names for them. 2020 seemed intent from day one to make life as challenging as possible. And if recent trends are anything to go by, 2021 may be even worse.
Disaster Frequency Is Trending Upward
As referenced previously, the NCEI has been tracking billion-dollar disasters since 1980. While the overall average is the 7 per year that we mentioned above, the decennial increase in this number makes for startling reading:
- 1980-1989: 2.9 events per year
- 1990-1999: 5.3 events per year
- 2000-2009: 6.2 events per year
- 2010-2019: 11.9 events per year
- 2020-2029: 22 events per year
With the exception of the noughties, each decade has almost seen a doubling of the one that preceded it. We don’t yet know if 2020 is an outlier or an indicator but there are myriad factors to suggest that it’s a sign of things to come. While we don’t have time to detail them all here, there are three ubiquitous issues that increase the likelihood of major disasters.
What’s Causing These Disasters?
The first of these is climate change. At first glance, rising temperatures may seem to have more to do with certain disasters than others. However, there is a certain domino effect to global warming. For example, hotter weather dries out forest debris which increases the likelihood of wildfires. Increased temperatures also cause more rapid ice melt in the Arctic Circle, resulting in heavier rains and higher flood risk. Climate change also causes massive swings in temperatures which can cause powerful winter storms, lightning storms and even tornadoes. All thing considered, there are few natural disasters that aren’t at least exacerbated by climate change.
The second issue is the build-up of human settlements in vulnerable areas. As the global population increases, more people move to economic centers which are often on coastal or low-lying areas. The combination of climate change and more people (and assets) in harm’s way exponentially increases the chance for a major disaster. In fact, these mass migrations to more disaster-prone areas lead into our third and final issue.
And that issue is overwhelmed infrastructure. Throughout the world, cities are increasing in population at a far quicker rate than the existing infrastructure can handle. While this often manifests as traffic jams and smog, there can be disastrous implications in a disaster scenario. For example, flood defenses designed for a city before a surge in population may not adequately protect the newly-enlarged metropolis. Or, as happened in Michigan in 2020, poorly maintained infrastructure (in this case dams) can cause widespread destruction.
Despite these factors, however, the average cost per disaster has not kept pace with the increasing frequency.
Cost per Disaster is Trending Downward
Unsurprisingly, the huge uptick in annual disasters is also causing a massive spike in the annual cost of these events. Crucially, however, this increase is confined to the gross figure and not the cost per disaster:
- 1980-1989: $6.14 billion per qualifying disaster
- 1990-1999: $5.17 billion per qualifying disaster
- 2000-2009: $8.37 billion per qualifying disaster
- 2010-2019: $6.81 billion per qualifying disaster
- 2020-2029: $4.32 billion per qualifying disaster
As you can see, the average per decade has stayed somewhat consistent, noughties aside. Much like what causes these disasters, there are any number of mitigating factors for these figures. Firstly, the downward shift over the last 20 years can be explained by superior weather forecasting abilities. As severe as many of these weather events can be, we know much more much earlier, allowing protective measures to be taken.
On top of this forecasting ability, many communities now utilize emergency management systems like the CentrAlert Crisis-Driven Alert & Control. Such systems allow for calm and considered responses to dramatic events and can massively decrease risk in any emergency scenario. They also play a vital role in helping to protect anyone living in the path of a potential disaster, which may help explain our next statistic.
Deaths per Disaster Are Trending Down Significantly
This next set of figures can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, the number of deaths per year has been increasing. However, the number of disasters per year has been increasing at a much higher rate, meaning that the number of deaths per disaster has steadily fallen over the decades:
- 1980-1989: 99 deaths per billion-dollar disaster
- 1990-1999: 57 deaths per billion-dollar disaster
- 2000-2009: 50 deaths per billion-dollar disaster
- 2010-2019: 44 deaths per billion-dollar disaster
- 2020-2029: 12 deaths per billion-dollar disaster
Equating overall deaths versus deaths per disaster can be something of a Hobson’s choice but there is one major factor to consider. Simply put, there were many more people in harm’s way in 2020 than in 1980. 47% more people, in fact. And while comparing 2020 to an entire decade may not be overly instructive, 2020 actually saw fewer deaths than the average yearly figure in the 1980s (262 vs 287). If this positive trend is to continue, communities across the country need to have plans in place if and when a disaster strikes.
Effective and Immediate Communication Is Key in Any Emergency Scenario
Unlike crises such as active shooters or chemical explosions, many potential natural disasters can be anticipated. As mentioned above, however, this does not mean that you should wait until the last minute to prepare.
To keep your community safe, you need to quickly broadcast health and safety messages. You also need the ability to update information to meet people’s changing needs throughout the crisis. Thankfully, CentrAlert has a simple solution.
Activate, Communicate and Mitigate with CentrAlert’s Crisis-Driven Alert & Control (C-DAC)
CentrAlert designs and manufactures Crisis-Driven Alert & Control, or C-DAC, which is an intelligent emergency alert and control system that directs personal communications to targeted recipients, coordinates mass notification using any device, and provides integrated controls to secure the environment and mitigate the effects of a crisis.
Whether you need C-DAC to automatically send preset weather or disaster warning messages to specific people via any communication channel (Weather NOW!), control disparate sirens to warn of an approaching wildfire (SOS Siren) or monitor water levels or dam structural issues (Dam Breach Detect), C-DAC lets any community offer calm responses to dramatic events.
C-DAC features dozens of customizable options to fit any emergency plan and if you want more information on how CentrAlert can help protect your community, please click here.