The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reviewed the costs of natural disasters and their effects on communities, and published its findings in a September 10 report.
Between January 1980 and July 2020, the United States experienced 273 climate and weather disasters causing more than $1 billion in damages each, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And NOAA puts the total cost of damages from these disasters in excess of $1.79 trillion, with hurricanes and tropical storms accounting for over 50 percent of these damages.
Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma (selected hurricanes) caused costly damages and challenges for some populations in affected communities. In these communities, NOAA estimated the cost of damages to be approximately $170 billion for Katrina, $74 billion for Sandy, $131 billion for Harvey, and $52 billion for Irma. These estimates include the value of damages to residential, commercial, and government or municipal buildings; material assets within the buildings; business interruption; vehicles and boats; offshore energy platforms; public infrastructure; and agricultural assets. These hurricanes were also costly to the federal government. For example, in 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that federal spending exceeded $110 billion in response to Katrina and $53 billion in response to Sandy.
GAO analysis suggests that the selected hurricanes were associated with widely varying effects on overall economic activity and total employment in affected metropolitan areas and counties. Economic activity was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in three of the affected metropolitan areas GAO analyzed. Within one year, average economic activity in these three metropolitan areas was similar to or greater than what it had been the year before the hurricane. Total employment was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in 80 of the affected counties GAO analyzed. Total employment was higher than pre-hurricane employment on average in 47 of those counties within one year but remained below pre-hurricane employment on average in the other 33 counties for at least one year. Finally, state and local government officials said that the selected hurricanes had significant impacts on communities, local governments, households, and businesses with fewer resources and less expertise, and that challenges faced by households may have impacted local businesses.
GAO’s review found that communities affected by selected hurricanes have been taking actions to improve resilience, but multiple factors can affect their decisions. Actions taken after selected hurricanes include elevating, acquiring, and rehabilitating homes; flood-proofing public buildings; repairing and upgrading critical infrastructure; constructing flood barriers; and updating building codes. A community’s decision to take resilience actions can depend on the costs and benefits of those actions to the community. Multiple factors affect these costs and benefits, including the likelihood, severity, and location of future disasters, as well as the amount of federal assistance available after a disaster.
The watchdog warns that vulnerabilities remain in areas affected by selected hurricanes. For example, state and local government officials indicated that many older homes in these areas do not meet current building codes. In reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), states indicate they anticipate that the scope of damages via exposure to weather hazards, such as hurricanes, will likely remain high and could expand across regions affected by the selected hurricanes. In addition, some local governments have projected that population will grow in the regions affected by selected hurricanes.