U.S. weather disasters in perspective

U.S. weather disasters in perspective

December 9th, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

It has been memorably noted, at least since the late 19th century, that "Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Some attribute that remark -- in varying forms -- to Mark Twain, others to a newspaper editor.

Whoever said it, it remains true -- not that anybody really can do much about the weather, beyond prepare for it.

In Chattanooga, of course, we are blessed with a relatively mild climate. Our summers are hot and humid, but usually not terribly so. Our winters may bring a bit of snow and ice, but it's typically not overwhelming and it ordinarily doesn't last long. And spring and fall can be sheer delights in this area.

It is notable, however, that 2011 has produced the highest number on record of weather disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage in the United States. There have been a dozen billion-dollar-or-more disasters related to snow, drought, wildfires, tornadoes and such this year. We sadly recall the April tornado outbreak that claimed scores of lives in this region.

The tragic weather disasters of 2011 should be kept in perspective, however.

It's important to bear in mind a couple of points:

• First, the "record" of a dozen billion-dollar disasters in one year doesn't cover a very long time span. Scientists began keeping track of the annual number of billion-dollar weather disasters only 31 years ago -- in 1980. So the figures don't include years with high numbers of large-scale disasters from 1979 or earlier.

• And second, the total damage -- $52 billion -- of the billion-dollar-plus disasters in 2011 does not come anywhere close to the dollar damage from even some lone catastrophes in previous years. Nor was the death toll from this year's disasters -- more than 600 -- nearly so high as seen in some other years. For instance, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused $145 billion in damage by itself and killed 1,800 people. And a 1928 hurricane killed more than 2,500 people in Florida.

Of course, we are naturally horrified by even a single death caused by extreme weather. But seen in perspective, 2011 has not been as destructive as a number of other years have been.

And from that we can take some comfort, even as we mourn those who have lost their lives in weather calamities this year and help those whose property has been damaged.