Is America Ready for Hurricane Season?

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The costs of hurricane damages are expected to grow even faster than the country’s economy.

By Madeleine Thomas

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(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Less than a week into the start of hurricane season, experts are already forecasting that 2016 will be the most active in three years, with eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes predicted so far. Why? As El Niño transitions into La Niña, strong wind shears — which can break apart hurricanes as they form — start to weaken in the Atlantic, setting the stage for budding storms.

Regardless of La Niña, growing research suggests that the intensity and unpredictability of hurricane season is expected to increase with climate change. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office estimates the increases in hurricane damages by the years 2025, 2050, and 2070 — and the amount of federal aid money needed for repairs — given current climate change and coastal development projections for years to come.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of people living in counties exposed to hurricane damage grew 22 percent faster than the rest of America’s population, the report finds. And cities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts should take note: Over time, the costs of hurricane damages are expected to grow even faster than the country’s economy.

Among the CBO report’s findings:

  • About 1.2 million people currently live in counties where hurricane damage could be substantial — meaning losses could total more than 5 percent of the nation’s per capita income. By 2050, some 5.8 million Americans will live in areas vulnerable to substantial storm damages. By 2075, that number will nearly double to 10 million people.
  • Hurricane damages currently total $28 billion, which is about 0.16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). By 2075, hurricane damages could reach about 0.22 percent of the country’s GDP—equivalent to $39 billion today. Climate change is responsible for about 45 percent of that damage, according to the report; a boom in coastal development accounts for the rest of the losses. Federal relief and recovery spending is expected to increase from $18 billion today to $24 billion in 2075.
  • The effects of a hurricane on the country’s GDP varies depending on the costs of re-building efforts and spending. Although a single hurricane probably wouldn’t have much effect on the country’s GDP, as storms intensify due to climate change, “the economy might not fully recover from one catastrophic storm before it was hit by another,” according to the report.
  • Even if the United States were to significantly reduce its own greenhouse gasses, hurricane damages won’t lessen overall unless lowering carbon emissions becomes a total global effort. “[A] significant reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, without corresponding decreases in the emissions of other large economies, would probably not reduce hurricane damage appreciably between now and 2075, in part because U.S. emissions constitute a shrinking share of global emissions,” the authors of the report write.

It appears climate change funding is dwindling along with carbon emissions. Just a few weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill cutting 20 percent from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate research and 12 percent from NASA’s earth science division — crucial money dedicated to studying the effects of global warming, like emissions tracking, and our changing oceans.

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