(Aug. 31 update: As power outages continue and crop losses mount, damage estimates for Hurricane Irene have climbed to $7 billion and possibly as high as $10 billion.)
By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
The cost of Hurricane Irene will be hefty. It will take $5 billion to $7 billion, by early estimates, to repair roads, haul out downed trees and pump out flooded basements in North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, and the hurricane’s surprise last-minute victim, Vermont.
That’s similar to the $5.2 billion price tag placed on the Texas drought this year, which has caused extensive livestock and crop failures in the state, a major producer of beef, corn, cotton and other commodities.
Both disasters, though, may be even more costly. Irene will have a lingering effect that may not be tallied in the insurers grand totals. There’s the largely unseen loss of barrier island sands and the damage to flooded buildings that will bear lasting effects.
Floods tend to erode foundations, bridges and roads in incalculable ways.
Droughts have their own way of rippling forward.
Many trees that survive this year’s lack of rain will succumb next year, weakened by the struggle. Not to mention those lost to wildfires. The soil will suffer, too, growing a bit thinner and less robust because of the unseen damage to its microbiology.
These two disasters, Irene and the historic Southwest drought, are the worst weather events of 2011, economically, and that’s saying something in a year that delivered a record number of 1,200 tornadoes, two of which blasted the cities of Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., killing hundreds. The damage of all the spring storms was estimated to be $1 billion.
And in between the spring storms and the hurricane season, we saw major flooding from North Dakota to Mississippi, along the Souris, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, at varying times. Total damage there: $1.1 billion and counting.
So totaling all this devastation we’re looking at an economic price tag so far in 2011 of around $12 billion for the major weather disasters in the US, conservatively.
How much of this is attributable to climate change? There’s really no way to know. Is it 10 percent? 20 percent? At 30 percent, you could say that the cost claimed by climate change in 2011 was $4 billion. That’s a real cost that would justify taking action.
But climate change is stealth. We aren’t sure what we’re witnessing. The landscape is vast. You see a storm. I see a drought. And there are so many moving parts.
Take the floods. Unusual snow and rainfall precipitated them, but ill-timed dam releases might have worsened the effects.
Irene was bad, but many previous hurricanes were worse. She did resemble Katrina, in her giant expanse and copious rainfall, and that’s indicative of a storm fed by warming oceans.
One thing we can say for sure, these disasters fall into the shifting patterns predicted by climate scientists. They’ve said we’ll see worsening storms and deluges of rain in the Midwest and Northeast; increasing dry periods in the Southwest; and extended heat waves and more potent tropical storms affecting the US wherever they strike. Check, check and check.
Now it’s up to us. Do we act to reduce the carbon air pollution that drives climate change, or wait for further evidence?
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