Up until recently, it only took one extreme weather event to make a year stand out. We recall the heatwave of 1995 or the deep freeze of 1996—very memorable for me as the high temperatures in Duluth, Minnesota, where I was living briefly, stayed at all of 20 below zero for two weeks straight. But as we’ve pumped up the volume of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, extreme weather events are starting to roll in by the month rather than by the year.
2011 has taken us beyond anything we’ve experienced in the last 30 years, according to a just-released report by NRDC. At $53 billion (not including health care costs), the price tag for these disasters has been higher than any year on record and the toll it’s taken on people, especially during hard economic times, has been unforgiving and cruel. We don’t yet know the total health care costs for this year’s disaster, but NRDC scientists and university economists who studied six climate-change-related events over the last decade in the United States found that they amounted to more than $14 billion.
Just to take one example, during three days in April, 59 tornadoes blitzkrieged 10 states, damaging wide swathes of housing but thankfully without fatalities. The cost of this event alone totaled $2.2 billion dollars. Sadly, we weren’t always to be that lucky: Later that April 305 tornadoes devastated areas in the South and Midwest, including one that wreaked havoc in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The death toll climbed to 327 and the costs associated with reconstruction hit $9 billion.
The harsh summer storms aren’t the only result of warming climes. As average atmospheric temperatures rise, the air is able to hold more water. As a result, during the winter we’ve seen greater snowfalls. One major event hit in February, when the Groundhog Day Blizzard seized the eastern third of the country, shutting down cities and resulted in the deaths of 36 people.
In the summer, record rainfall caused huge floods along the Missouri and Souris rivers in the upper Midwest and the Mississippi around Memphis and St. Louis. But the summer saw even more apocalyptic damage throughout Texas where a landscape that had been baked to tinder blazed uncontrollably, destroying hundreds of homes and killing five.
We used to talk about how America might not feel so much of the brunt of global warming—at least for a while. Countries like Bangladesh and the island nations of the Pacific would suffer and perhaps even vanish underwater, but America might enjoy balmier summers and milder winters. Well, that’s not how things are shaping up. Just take a look at NRDC’s interactive map displaying the spread of extreme events across the country month by month. Initially, you see isolated patches of record rain and snowfall popping up here and there, then the Groundhog Day blizzard coats more than half the nation. By the summer, multiple and overlapping extreme events cover great swathes of the nation.
We live in paradoxical if not oxymoronic times—faced with enormous flooding and wildfires simultaneously. And it behooves all of us to keep ourselves safe and secure at home. It’s critical that you set up a disaster plan with your family. This plan should include the following:
• All family members should have a contact card listing a meeting place and phone number and contact information for a friend outside the region with whom family members can check in.
• All family members should have the number and a phone to call with.
• Ensure that you have carriers and food for pets.
• Check your insurance for coverage of emergencies known to strike your area.
• Take a first aid and CPR courses at a local chapter of your national Red Cross or Red Crescent society (see directory at ifrc.org).
You should also maintain a “go bag” with items you may need should disaster strike. Check out the full list at NRDC Smarter Living’s disaster preparedness pages and be sure to store it in an easily accessible spot.
As report author Kim Knowlton, senior scientist at NRDC, notes in a recent post, “As a nation, we can and do need to be better prepared for these disasters” by both reducing carbon pollution and by developing climate action that include health preparedness. Only 13 states currently have such plans. You can take action now by urging your representative to keep our clean energy economy moving forward.