In Depth

Weather Eye

Billion Dollar Disasters

Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky /

It's Getting Worse

In the past 36 years, there have been 200 weather-related disasters that each cost over a billion dollars. These disasters span a multitude of severe weather types and multiple states, damaging homes, businesses, agricultural properties, and other assets. Some of these billion dollar events, such as Hurricane Sandy ($68.3 billion) and Hurricane Katrina ($153.8 billion), are seared into the nation’s memory, while others, such as a series of severe storms in 2003, may be largely forgotten, despite the exorbitant financial and social price tag. Unfortunately, weather disaster trends are growing worse. During the 1980s, there was an average of 2.7 unique billion dollar disasters per year (adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index). This average rose to 4.8 billion dollar disasters per year in the 1990s, and 5.4 per year in the 2000s. 

From 2010 to August 2016 we have already seen an average of about 10 billion dollar disasters every year. During 2011 alone, there were 16 unique billion dollar disasters. 

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Annual Frequency of Billion Dollar Disasters (1980-2016)

There may be a number of reasons why billion dollar disasters are becoming more frequent, including population increases, migration to cities, the growing value or increasing age of infrastructure, and a rise in storm severity or frequency. For that matter, all of these factors could be coming into play in any given disaster. And while improving resilience to such disasters, through better infrastructure, for example, is an expensive prospect for most counties, dealing with the aftermath of a serious disaster is far more costly, including in human terms. 

Severe Storms are Pernicious, but Tropical Cyclones Wreak Havoc

The billion dollar disasters include a range of weather events, each with their own brand of destruction. Severe storms, which include tornadoes, hail, and powerful winds, are the most common type of billion dollar disaster. Out of the 200 billion dollar disasters since 1980, 83 were severe storms, averaging $2.2 billion in damages per storm. The second most common billion dollar disaster, tropical cyclones, only occurred 34 times, though these storms are generally far more destructive, averaging $16.2 billion per storm. So severe storms may be pernicious, but when tropical cyclones occur, they wreak havoc.

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Comparative Cost and Frequency of Disaster Types (1980-2016)