90 percent of all US counties experienced climate disaster: research

Story at a glance

  • The findings highlight the growing social and economic toll climate change is taking on communities. 

  • More than $92 billion in tax-payer money has been allocated to help those affected in the past decade.

  • Counties in Kentucky and Louisiana had the highest incidence of natural disasters. 

The vast majority of U.S. counties have experienced a climate disaster in the past decade, according to a new report from Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit aimed at helping communities recover from disasters. 

Between 2011 and 2021, 90 percent of counties experienced a climate disaster that received a federal disaster declaration. Some experienced as many as 12 during that time. Five states have experienced at least 20 disasters over the past 10 years.

The report also found that in 2021 alone the country suffered 20 separate billion-dollar climate disasters, leading to nearly 700 deaths. 

Throughout the past decade, more than $92 billion in tax dollars has been allocated to help recovery efforts, per the report.

Federal declarations of a major disaster are made when state and local authorities are overwhelmed, and the move can unlock additional funding and resources for affected areas. 

Experts have long warned that the impending climate crisis would lead to more frequent and intense natural disasters, and the effects of climate change are beginning to be acutely felt in the United States, as hurricane seasons stretch longer and flooding becomes more frequent

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The counties the report found had experienced climate disasters over the last decade are home to more than 300 million people, underscoring the large social and economic toll natural disasters can take. Previous research has shown that since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, only seven of the nation’s 50 largest cities have adopted strong disaster preparedness plans. 

Rebuild by Design found five counties in Kentucky and Louisiana had the highest occurrences of disasters, while California experienced 25 federal disaster declarations — the highest total of any state. In contrast, Nevada had the fewest disasters. 

Per capita cost of disasters was also the highest in Louisiana, at $1,736, compared with Arizona’s low of just $3 per capita, according to the report. New York, Texas and Florida received the most federal funding post-disaster. All disasters declared relating to COVID-19 were excluded from the analysis. 

Looking at the United States as a whole, counties that have suffered the most federal natural disasters are largely concentrated in the Southeast.

Apart from geographic location, some populations are at a greater risk of the negative effects of natural disasters than others, particularly the elderly, those with limited ability and who rely on electricity for medical purposes and low-income individuals. 

Furthermore, households led by women, any with children under the age of 18, renters and individuals with low socioeconomic status are at the greatest risk of being underprepared in the face of hurricanes, floods and wildfires. 

And despite their moniker, researchers purport natural disasters aren’t really natural at all but are rather the “product of a natural hazard and the combination of social, political, and economic stressors.” 

“When a climate disaster occurs, underlying vulnerabilities – due to race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, income, or ability – are magnified, creating a greater risk for certain populations,” the report states

Rebuild by Design was launched after Superstorm Sandy swept through the Northeast United States 10 years ago. In the years since, teams have worked with community organizations and government entities to design physical and social infrastructure to address risks posed by sea level rise and extreme weather. 

“In the decade since Hurricane Sandy, we have witnessed a shift in public understanding of how climate change will affect our communities,” the report authors wrote. “Republican and Democrat, coastal and inland, urban and rural communities are all affected.”

The organization also offers recommendations to boost resilience in the face of growing climate-related threats. These include implementing targeted climate adaptation infrastructure improvements geared toward vulnerable populations that have been historically underserved by the government.

“By investing in infrastructure that reduces the impacts of severe weather events before a disaster strikes, communities, the built environment, and the economy will be better prepared for a future with more climate extremes,” the authors wrote. 

The report was carried out in partnership with APTIM and iParametrics

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