A record breaking year for disaster
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - September's T.S. Lee was just another reminder that Louisiana is one of the nation's true 'hot spots' when it comes to tropical landfalls. In addition, Lee is just another example of a long list of weather events making 2011 an extraordinary year for extreme weather over the United States.
A recent report by the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) notes that by the end of September, the U.S. had already broken the record number of federal disaster declarations issued in a single year. The 86 federal disaster declarations through the first nine months of 2011 tops the previous annual record of 81, which was set just last year. In addition, the estimated price tag of nearly $25 billion through September places 2011 among the five or six costliest years on record in terms of insurance claims.
By comparison, for the 15 years from 1996 through 2010, there were an average of 58 such declarations per year, and only three years -- 1996, 2008 and 2010 -- had 75 or more declarations. Some of the increase since the mid 1990s can be attributed to a greater willingness on the fed's part to issue declarations, but certainly Mother Nature has been extra busy in recent years.
Not only has 2011 been extraordinarily active in terms of the number of weather-related disasters, but the U.S. has suffered through a full array of extreme weather events this year.
A powerful winter storm over much of the central and eastern U.S. at the end of January began the run of extremes, followed by one of the deadliest and most active "tornado seasons" on record for the nation as a whole. Spring and summer Ohio and Mississippi river flooding added to the burden, while one of the most devastating droughts on record persists across the Southern Plains, extending into western and northern Louisiana. The Southern U.S. drought has not only been devastating for the region's agriculture, but it also has spawned record and near-record wildfire frequencies.
(It is worth noting that the 2011 drought over the Southern U.S. can be traced back to its beginnings over northern Louisiana in the spring of 2010. Critical drought conditions over the Southern Plains did not develop until six months later.)
And more recently, August's Hurricane Irene -- with her track from the Carolinas into New England -- wreaked havoc through the nation's most densely populated corridor.
All of these extreme events come at a time when Congress is debating how to continue FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a program of critical importance to many flood-prone Louisiana residents.
Without doubt, Louisiana is too often a target of Mother Nature's wrath, ranking sixth in the nation based on the numbers of federal declarations by state since 1953. Of these top six states, all five of the states with more declarations are larger in size and only Oklahoma has a smaller statewide population. And keep in mind that these account for only major federal declarations and do not include additional state disaster declarations that do not qualify for federal response.
It comes as no surprise that tropical weather is a big reason for the high number of federal declarations for the Bayou State, and historically, tropical systems have been responsible for most of the state's costliest weather disasters. But many underestimate the role of non-tropical weather, accounting for roughly two-thirds of Louisiana's federal declarations since the program began (in 1953). Indeed, winter/spring storms account for more than half of the total federal declarations issued for Sportsman's Paradise. Even during the last 20 years, when Louisiana has suffered a marked increase in tropical weather impacts, Louisiana has been included in more federal declarations for non-tropical weather events than for tropical storms and hurricanes.
Annual tropical activity over the Atlantic Basin has been above the long-term average routinely since the mid 1990s, and a consensus outlook by hurricane experts indicates that this elevated activity is likely to continue for at least another decade or more. The impact of this recent upswing in storm counts for Louisiana has been obvious: more than a doubling of the average number of tropical impacts per decade for Louisiana during 2001-2010. At the same time, many from within climate-science circles believe that we should prepare for more frequent occurrences of all types of weather and climatic extremes in the coming decades, largely due to the theories behind (rapid) climate change.
No doubt, Louisiana not only needs to remain extra-ready for another decade of all-too-frequent tropical 'hits,' but should brace for the potential of increased severe weather year-round!
So, is there any good news?
Over the long haul, there are no shining 'climate' stars that would suggest a decline in the severe weather threat for Louisiana any time soon. But in the coming months, there may be a tiny glimmer of short-term hope.
However, with La Niña setting-up in the Pacific, history suggests that there is a reduced threat for severe weather and flooding rains for the Bayou State during the upcoming winter and spring, especially for the southern parishes. Now remember, this is not an "all clear forecast" for the coming months, but during La Niña winter/springs there is a tendency for below-average seasonal rains, reduced river flooding, and a modest drop in severe-weather activity.
And it sure seems like Louisiana is do a break from Mother Nature's misbehaving.