The unnatural trend in natural disasters

Natural disaster declarations are on the rise in the Ninth District, and while weather is an important factor, it's likely not the only one

Dulguun Batbold - Research Assistant

Published November 7, 2012  |  January 2013 issue

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s useful to remember that about this time last year much of the Ninth District was busy cleaning up from severe floods that swelled the Missouri and Souris rivers. This year, drought plagued much of the district, and large wildfires raged in parts of Montana and South Dakota.

From floods to hurricanes to blizzards, natural calamities can threaten livelihoods and devastate entire regions. Unfortunately for many, natural disasters appear to be getting harder to avoid. Since 1953, the number of disaster declarations—unique disaster events—issued each year has increased significantly, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). In the 1960s, there were about 18 major disaster declarations per year in the nation. But from 2000 to 2009, annual declarations reached 56. Last year was the busiest year on record, with 99 major disaster declarations.

Disaster declarations in the Ninth District closely follow the national trends. The number of major disaster declarations in the district more than doubled from an average of 2.6 per year in the 1960s to well over five per year in the past decade, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

As a result, the number of disaster areas, which are declared by FEMA at the county level, also has been rising strongly, even if you ignore the comparatively small number of disaster-declared counties during the 1980s (see Chart 1, top panel). From the 1960s to the 2000s, the average number of disaster-declared counties in the Ninth District nearly tripled. This growth has been particularly prominent in the Dakotas and Montana, where disaster counts per year show a nearly sevenfold increase.

Large Chart

Disasters tend to be regional events; therefore, annual disaster counts in district states do not often coincide with those at the national level (see Chart 1, bottom panel). However, both national and district disaster counts follow a similar, rising trend line since the 1960s, though the rate of increase in disaster declarations is slightly higher at the national level.

Floods and severe storms are the biggest sources of FEMA declarations in the Ninth District, accounting for more than two-thirds of all disaster declarations. But each state has a unique disaster profile, based on geography and climate. More than half of FEMA declarations in Montana since 1953 are the result of fire, easily the largest share among district states (see Chart 2, bottom panel). South Dakota also has a high incidence of fire. In 2000, more than 1 million acres burned in the northern Rockies, and FEMA declared disaster areas in over 54 counties in Montana. Wildfire-related declarations have been recurring in Montana almost every year since then.

In terms of reported fatalities and injuries, tornadoes traditionally posed the highest risk to human life in district states, particularly if they hit densely populated areas. The tornadoes that tore through counties near Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1965 caused over 700 reported injuries and fatalities. However, injuries and deaths related to tornadoes have declined over time, from about 1.8 deaths and injuries per reported tornado during the 1970s to just 0.2 per tornado in the 2000s. The combined territory of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northwestern Wisconsin (roughly two-thirds the size of Minnesota) has comparatively fewer disasters, but a relatively large share of them are tornadoes.

Large Chart

The growing number of reported disasters appears to come from several sources. Most obviously, there has been an increase in the incidence of severe weather events as reported in the Storm Events Database by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which catalogs severe weather incidents that resulted in fatalities, injuries or property/crop damage since 1950 (see Chart 2, top panel).

There are several other possible sources for the increase in disaster declarations, according to the CRS report. For example, the uptick in storm events is likely a function—to some unknown degree—of greater interest in and improved measurement of severe weather. The U.S. population also has roughly doubled since the 1950s, with the Ninth District population growing by about two-thirds, and developed acreage has correspondingly increased. As a result, severe weather events are more apt to affect people and property—triggering disaster declarations—today than in the past.

The report added that declarations might well be influenced by tight state budgets (which demonstrate financial need), the enhanced capabilities of professional state and local emergency services to identify and quantify disaster costs, and even “declaration creep”—the tendency of states to seek aid received by others for the same disaster, assisted by the political pressure generated by 24/7 news coverage.

Whatever the source of disaster, the other notable trend is rising costs. Over the past decade, average FEMA grant amounts have skyrocketed (see Chart 3). The majority of these grants are allocated in response to severe storms and floods, which tend to affect a greater number of counties per occurrence. Last year’s floods inundated 120 counties in the Dakotas and Minnesota and cost U.S. taxpayers $436 million in public assistance grants and aid to individuals.

Large Chart

But the incidence of natural disasters is volatile and unpredictable, which is evident this year; things have been rather quiet in the district, at least in some respects. Drought has gripped the district and much of the nation, and wildfires have been a problem in Montana and South Dakota. But lack of rain tends not to destroy commercial or residential property; nor do wildfires because they usually occur in forested areas with comparatively sparse development. Through October of this year, FEMA had declared three major disasters in the district—two in response to severe storms and flooding in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin and one related to wildfires in Montana.

What happens next year in terms of natural disasters is unknown, of course, but that’s apropos given their connection to the notoriously unpredictable weather in the Ninth District.