Hurricane Irene: Record-Breaking Billion-Dollar Disaster?

08/27/2011 09:42 am ET | Updated Oct 27, 2011
  • Paul Yeager Meteorologist and Author of 'Weather Whys: Facts, Myths, and Oddities'

Between damage to infrastructure (buildings, boardwalks, mass transit systems, etc.), storm surge flood damage, fresh water flood damage (from heavy rain), beach erosion, and vehicular damage, it's possible that Hurricane Irene will be another billion-dollar-plus U.S. weather disaster.

I say "another" because it would be the record-breaking 10th such weather disaster of 2011. The previous high was nine in 2008. Irene would also raise the total of billion-dollar-plus weather disasters since 1980 to 109. (For more information, see the recent NOAA press release.)

Hurricane Katrina was the worst weather disaster, both in terms of the number of fatalities (1,833) and dollar damage ($133.8 billion) since these records have started.

The costly weather disasters to date have been primarily related to tornadoes and flooding (Irene is the first Atlantic basin hurricane of the season). The list also includes a massive winter blizzard in the central and eastern U.S. and the ongoing drought and heatwave (including wildfires) in the Southern Plains and Desert Southwest.

The financial damage of the 2011 events pales in comparison to the loss of life, however, and two of the tornado outbreaks this year were among the most deadly in U.S. history.

The most deadly of the year was the late-April tornado outbreak that hit the Southeast, Midwest, and Ohio Valley. The outbreak (an estimated 305 tornadoes) was responsible for 327 deaths, including 240 in Alabama when several major metropolitan areas were struck by tornadoes. Damage estimates are at $9 billion, the most costly disaster in terms of dollars this year to date.

The Midwest and Southeast tornado outbreak less than a month later included the most deadly single U.S. tornado since at least 1950; 141 people were killed in Joplin, Missouri, and 177 people were killed in the outbreak. The dollar value is estimated at $7 billion.

Tornadoes are exceptionally dangerous in terms of potential loss of life since there is often not enough warning for victims to be able to remove themselves from danger.

Let's hope that the ample warning and media coverage of Hurricane Irene means that we're only talking about dollar damage after the storm moves away, not loss of life.