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A year of unusual and costly weather

By Rhodesia Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Dec 6, 2017 - 2:26:21 AM

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Ann Rutledge looks at the damage to her mobile home at the Prairie Lake Estates mobile-home park in Barron County, May 17, in Chetek, Wis. Rutledge and her family had lived in that home for over 20 years. Residents of an Oklahoma subdivision and a Wisconsin trailer park that were leveled by deadly tornadoes sifted through what remained of their homes and possessions, even as forecasters warned of another round of powerful storms on the horizon.

America has surely taken a beating. From the recent earthquakes and tornadoes to Northern California wildfires and calamitous hurricanes, this year’s unending chain of natural disasters has proven to be one of the costliest and deadliest in U.S. history, leaving many questioning what type of weather will  be seen in 2018 and what will be its long-term impact on the economy?

A series of 28 small earthquakes within 24 hours struck California  and residents are afraid of the “Big One,” especially since 10 mini-quakes have struck along the San Andreas Fault, says geophysicist John Bellini. 

Many regions in the U.S. are experiencing some type of natural disaster. Although tornado season is usually between March and June, there were 1,247 tornado touch downs since the second day of January, including an Oct. 23 tornado that hit North and South Carolina. 

Nearly 98,000 homes and businesses were without power after an EF2 tornado (winds between 111 m.p.h. and 135 m.p.h.) swept through the Carolinas, leaving flipped tractor trailers and small planes, washed out roads, and about 2-3.5 inches of rain.

Sadly, just days before, severe storms reportedly produced four EF1 tornadoes in central Oklahoma ripping off a portion of Riverwind Casino’s roof. Luckily, there were no fatalities, but the warning came too late.

“Our crews had been watching the weather all night long,” said Kym Koch, spokesperson for the casino. “But the tornado warning was issued by the National Weather Service the moment the tornado hit Riverwind.”

Unfortunately, she said, despite protocols in place for severe weather, time did not allow them to be executed. Guests were instructed to take cover and secure themselves. No injuries of patrons or employees were reported.

Although tornadoes are a rare occurrence in October, at least 46 tornadoes touched down in October in the U.S. this year, leaving many wondering what’s going on with this unusual weather?

“We are seeing remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system,” said David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Program. “We are now in truly uncharted territory.”

This comes after a worrisome 2016, during which many weather-related records were broken and now 2017 is breaking records.

California has begun cleanup from deadly wildfires that spread through Northern California beginning Oct. 8. The wildfires burned more than 245,000 acres, destroyed an estimated 8,700 structures and killed at least 42 people, according to state officials.

This Sept. 4 file photo provided by KATU-TV shows a wildfi re as seen from near Stevenson, Wash., across the Columbia River, burning in the Columbia River Gorge above Cascade Locks, Ore. The fast-moving wildfi re chewed through Oregon's Columbia River Gorge and threatened more than homes and people. It also devoured the heart of the state's nature-loving identity. Photos: AP/Wide World photos

In this aerial photo, a neighborhood near Addicks Reservoir is fl ooded by rain from Tropical Storm Harvey, Aug. 29, in Houston. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

Sonoma was the hardest hit county with 6,800 homes lost. Another 569 homes in Napa County were destroyed. The two Wine Country counties each lost at least five percent of their housing stock, according to estimates. The economic toll is predicted to climb to about $85 billion.

Many residents are beginning to see just how arduous the task of rebuilding will be, especially with the elevated costs of materials needed to rebuild.

There are more burned homes than there are contractors and material costs are likely to soar due to the surge in demand for rebuilding homes and businesses. Places like Santa Rosa, Sonoma country’s largest city, lost entire neighborhoods.

Napa is also looking at the economic impact due to its reliance on wine-related tourism. Several dozen wineries in the region were damaged or destroyed. In Napa Valley alone, visitors generated nearly $2 billion in spending in 2016, according to research conducted by San Francisco-based Destination Analysts.

Napa’s first priority is a government-sponsored cleanup of hazardous waste and ash that involves the Environment Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. The state and federal government declared a public health emergency due to wildfires, making available extra resources to help in recovery efforts.

“Unlike a fire that occurs when you burn the wood in your home fireplace, the ash from burned homes contains many other items,” said Dr. Karen Milman, Sonoma County’s health officer. “It contains metals, chemicals, and potentially asbestos.”

The Army Corps of Engineers mobilized teams to remove toxic material from burned areas.

Eric Lamoureux, a regional administrator with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, told reporters the goal is to have the cleanup completed by early 2018, and envisions springtime for rebuilding to start, perhaps even sooner.

The estimated total insured losses for the Northern California fires stood at $1.05 billion, according to preliminary figures released by State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.

Insurers have received 601 claims for commercial property losses, 4,177 claims for partial residential losses and 3,000 claims for auto losses, said Mr. Jones.

September marked the single worst month for Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. With the destruction from Maria, Irma, and Harvey, this year’s series of devastating storms could make it the costliest hurricane season ever for the U.S.

Hurricane activity tends to drop off by early October, but it’s possible to get a storm in November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted. Just as everyone thought hurricane season was ending, Hurricane Maria hit Oct. 4, devastating Puerto Rico and leaving billions of dollars in damages. More than 85 percent of those losses are in Puerto Rico.

Nearly one million Puerto Ricans were without power after Irma slammed the island on Sept. 20, and just a month later, only 26 percent of households had power.

AIR Worldwide, known for calculating the financial toll of natural disasters, predicted that the Caribbean will face $30 billion in total damages, $20 billion in physical damages, both insured and uninsured, and $10 billion in lost economic productivity.

The longer Puerto Rico is without power, the worse the situation will be, said Chuck Watson, an analyst with the disaster research group Enki Research. He reported that it may take three months to get 90 percent of electricity restored, which he says will have more of an economic impact than a physical impact on Puerto Rico’s $100 billion economy.

Mr. Watson was concerned people will decide to flee Puerto Rico permanently. If so, that would really affect the economy because many who leave are middle class and professionals.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, said he had hoped that electricity would be restored to half of the island by Nov. 15 and 95 percent of the island by the end of the year. However, months after Maria, much of the island was still without power.

Puerto Rico was already in an economic crisis before the category 4 storm hit. It filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history back in May. 

The U.S. Virgin Islands were also hit hard. As of Oct. 22, just 14.9 percent of customers had power, according to the U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority. That includes about 71 percent without power on St. Thomas, 98.4 percent without power on St. Croix and 100 percent without power on St. John.

Hurricane Irma ravaged a trail of islands in the Caribbean and obliterated the island of Barbuda, twin to the island of Antigua, located southeast of Puerto Rico. All residents were evacuated to Antigua when Barbuda was left completely uninhabitable.

AIR Worldwide put insured losses for Hurricane Irma between $32 billion and $50 billion in the U.S. and the Caribbean.

Hurricane Irma made landfall near the Florida Keys Sept. 10 as a category 4 storm, leaving 14 dead in the U.S. and at least 42 more people dead throughout the Caribbean before it landed in Florida. Irma cost an estimated $100 billion in damages and that’s not including minimal damages in Georgia and South Carolina. However, 16 million people in all three states were without power.

Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas on Aug. 25 as a category 4 storm, dumping record setting amounts of rain and leaving 70 dead. Over 80 percent of Harvey’s flood victims didn’t have flood insurance. Estimated damages caused by the storm could total $190 billion.

On Aug. 30, Harvey struck again in Louisiana near Lake Charles. There was widespread flooding, but the state escaped the worst of the storm.

Florida’s economy is about half the size of Texas, but its range of industries, including tourism, ports, business services and health care, magnifies the impact of Irma.  Florida was fifth best year-over-year job  growth in the nation before Irma hit. Now, unemployment in both states has been tracking near or below the national average, leading to worker shortages.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma not only devastated thousands of lives and destroyed billions of dollars worth of property, these hurricanes have done long term damage to the competitiveness of both Texas and Florida, two of America’s most economically important states.

More than 20 refineries were closed or partially shut down as a result of Harvey, causing thousands to lose their jobs and inflate gas prices.

However, Irma caused losses of 50 percent to 70 percent of the state’s citrus crop in parts of South Florida, according to a spokesperson for the Florida Fruit &Vegetable Association. Last year, Florida ranked second in orange juice production.

The federal government’s flood insurance program paid thus far $204 million for Harvey victims. It could possibly reach $11 billion.

FEMA had received roughly 734,500 applications for assistance related to Harvey and had distributed $376 million and the agency received about 154,800 applications for assistance for Irma and had approved $21 million to help.

However, economists expect the U.S. areas affected by Harvey and Irma will recover much faster because Texas has the nation’s second largest economy and her economic output reached $1.7 trillion at the end of 2016. Florida, being the country’s fourth largest economy, reached $947 billion at the end of 2016.