Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were among the most expensive hurricanes in U.S. history, according to the disaster tracking group Enki Holdings. Combined with a severe and unusually long wildfire season, the government will need to pay at least $216 billion in disaster relief, more than the annual gross domestic product of Portugal.
The disaster relief bill passed by Congress this fall only provides $36.5 billion to be split between both flood damage and wildfire fighting.
The vast majority of costs from natural disasters came from this year’s hurricane season, which caused an estimated $206.6 billion in damage, the most expensive season on record according to a report released by Enki that used a computer simulator along with economic and infrastructure data to estimate the costs of every hurricane since 1871.
While 2005’s Hurricane Katrina still ranks as the costliest hurricane to hit the U.S. at $118 billion, Harvey which brought 50 inches of rainfall to the Gulf Coast caused $92 billion in damage, while Irma and Maria cost $59 billion and $42 billion, according to the study.
Enki Director Chuck Watson said that the study’s estimates only take into account direct damage from the storms, whereas numbers from other sources might include the costs of things like subway fortification in the case of Sandy and other preventative measures built into the price of recovery. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott put the costs of Harvey between $150 billion and $180 billion during an interview with Fox News, while Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosello asked Congress for $94 billion in November.
Wildfires that burned through parts of California, Oregon, and Montana also contributed to the vast price of natural disasters. More than $10 billion went toward costs related to wildfires in those three states alone.
Unlike hurricanes where the expenses come from damage to property and infrastructure, the costs of fighting a wildfire can quickly add up, said Steve Swindle, a Ventura Fire Department spokesperson.
“Manpower is one of the big ones. You have feeding, lodging, gas, equipment,” said Swindle. “Bigger the fire and the longer the fire goes, the greater the costs.”
Almost 7,000 firefighters have been sent to contain the fire currently burning in Southern California, according to the Ventura and Santa Barbara fire departments (PDF). The costs of fighting the ongoing fire is just below $50 million.
While there is currently no estimate on the cost of damage to the hundreds of homes in the Ventura fire’s path, insurance claims from October already show one of the most expensive and destructive fire seasons in recent history. The property damage of the Sonoma wildfires coupled with a smaller blaze on the edge of Los Angeles cost more than nine times the amount of the October 2015 wildfires that ravaged Northern California.
And while President Donald Trump denies climate change, experts say it will drive up costs for future fires and hurricanes.
“Climate is changing and it’s probably largely our fault,” Enki’s Watson said.
Enki’s computer model suggests increasingly noticeable changes in weather patterns while other climate scientists predict a warmer climate and unpredictable rainfall which can affect the intensity of both storms and fires, according to climate scientists. A study done by researchers at Berkeley found that climate change caused by human behavior likely lead to Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall while others point to Southern California’s lengthened fire season.
“We’ve had a lot of increases of fire in the U.S.,” climate and wildlife researcher Anthony LeRoy Westerling told The Daily Beast.
Westerling described a perfect storm where dead trees from California’s six-year drought provided steady fuel for the fires, and fresh grass that popped up during last year’s rainy winter turned into dangerous kindling during a hot and dry summer. The region is also still waiting for the fall storms that usually end fire season.
“[Rainfall] usually happens in October. It’s December and it hasn’t happened,” Westerling said. “Right now, the moisture in vegetation is lowest it’s ever been recorded in [Southern California].”
Over-development in dangerous areas also continues to be an issue, both Westerling and Watson agreed.
“There are more houses being built in harm’s way,” Westerling said as developers build deeper into California’s forests.
Similarly, a lull in hurricanes during the 1980s and ’90s motivated development in areas now at risk of destruction, Watson said.
“Simple fact is we’re putting so much stuff right on the coast line that of course when storms come in they’re going to get damage,” Watson told The Daily Beast.
Not only does over-development put more housing and businesses in the path of danger, but it also creates what Watson calls the “Walmart problem” where concrete can’t absorb heavy rain causing runoff that exacerbates flooding, like what was seen in Houston during Harvey.
“If you take several hours of rain on grass or dirt it might take eight or 10 hours to flow off downhill. You pave it, it’s taking eight or 10 minutes,” Watson said.
When asked what the future holds, both Westerling and Watson said that there are too many factors for an accurate prediction, but it’s likely that more destruction is on the way.