2017's near-record disasters: By the numbers

The destructive forces of three hurricanes, California’s wildfires and a handful of less-publicized weather events are putting 2017 on track to be one of the worst years for costly natural disasters in recent history. 

According the National Centers for Environmental Information, a government office that keeps tabs on disasters that wrack up over $1 billion in damage, there have already been 15 such disasters this year.

The only other year that had that many expensive disasters nine months into the year was 2011, which eventually set the record with 16.

2017 could break records in another way too. If between now and December 31 the U.S. is hit with a $1 billion winter storm, it will be the first year that billion-dollar disasters struck in all seven of the categories the NCEI tracks.

Of all the disaster categories, hurricanes are the costliest. 

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina led total disaster costs to a whopping $214.8 billion. That’s an order of magnitude higher than the average annual cost of big disasters, which is $33 billion.

The devastating hurricanes this year, while each fell short of Katrina-level damage levels, are still staggering in their destruction.

According to estimates by Moody’s investor services, Hurricane Maria caused $40 billion worth of destruction, Irma cause $56.5 billion, and Harvey $73 billion. If you add in economic loss, the totals rise to $70 billion, $70.5 billion and $81.5 billion, respectively.

Meanwhile, the wildfires raging in California could lead to an economic loss of $3 billion to $6 billion, according to preliminary estimates from RMS, a company that models disaster risk.

It’s no wonder that Congress is concerned about how to pay for the damage. Its first emergency relief bill appropriated $15 billion, and the latest bill to pass the House would add another $36.5 billion to the efforts. More relief packages are expected moving forward.

Critics argue that Congress should be better prepared for such disasters. A study by the Congressional Research Service found that between 1989 and 2014, 72 percent of all the appropriations to FEMA’s disaster relief fund came from supplemental spending bills. 

In other words, Congress only budgeted for 28 percent of the amount it ultimately ended up spending on the DRF, a central source of government-directed disaster relief.