2011: Looking Back on the Costliest Year for Weather Disasters

– by Mark Hoekzema, Chief Meteorologist

Twelve major weather events in 2011 caused more than 1,000 deaths and over $52 billion in damages, making last year the costliest on record for weather disasters in the U.S. (For a complete review of 2011 – read the great reports (Part 1 and Part 2) filed by Earth Networks meteorologist, Chad Merrill.)

What were the events of 2011 that made headlines? Here are several memorable, newsmaking weather events in 2011:

Plains Winter Storms: In February, a massive winter storm wreaked havoc in the Central and Northeast U.S. Chicago saw one of its top five snowfalls of all time when O’Hare International Airport received 20.2 inches. A fiberglass roof panel blew off Wrigley Field. In Texas, six were hurt by falling ice at the Cowboys Stadium during pre-Super Bowl festivities. The storm caused nearly half a million power outages in the central U.S.

Tornados: 2011 was the deadliest year for tornados since 1950. In April and May, 1,200 twisters ripped across the Midwest, Southeast and Ohio Valley, killing 545. A total of 805 tornadoes touched down during April to just before Memorial Day weekend, producing $26.4 billion in total losses.

Southern Heat and Drought: Texas saw its second-worst drought in history, made worse by record summer heat — the average temperature in Texas from June through August was 86.8 degrees — making it the hottest summer for any state in U.S. history. Many other cities had their hottest summer on record. The dry weather helped lower the U.S’s beef cattle inventory to levels not seen since 1958.

Active Tropical Season: The tropical season was a busy one for the second consecutive year. The first tropical storm of the season, Arlene, formed on June 29. That began a long season with 19 named storms. 2011 joined 1887, 1995 and 2010 for the third highest number of tropical storms on record.

Hurricane Irene made landfall in late August along the Eastern Seaboard. It produced more than $7 billion in damages and caused at least 45 deaths from North Carolina to Vermont as it slammed the North Carolina coast as a Category 1 Hurricane on August 27. It was the first hurricane to hit the U.S. since 2008’s Ike and was responsible for nine deaths in New England and almost 1.5 million power outages.

Tropical Storm Lee made landfall September 4 near Intracoastal City, La., and then slowly dissipated two days later in northern Georgia. It drenched the Southeast with up to 20 inches of rain. Chattanooga, Tenn., set its all-time 24-hour rainfall record. The Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania registered its second-highest crest on record, reaching 38.8 feet. Media reports indicated a few towns along the river suffered more flooding and damage from Lee than Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

Mississippi Valley Flooding: It was the worst year for flooding along the Mississippi River since the 1920s. In Cairo, Mo., the river level exceeded 61 feet before the levee was breached. The Mississippi crested in Memphis, Tenn., at nearly 48 feet, falling just short of its all-time record. The Missouri Farm Bureau estimated damage will likely exceed $100 million, with damage estimated at more than $750 million in Memphis, Tenn., and more than $500 million in Arkansas.

East Coast Snowstorm: In late October, the Interior Northeast saw its first significant October snow since 1979. Heavy, wet snow combined with tropical-storm to hurricane-force winds, creating a catastrophic situation. At least 29 died and more than three million were left in the dark from West Virginia to the Canadian Maritimes.

Every year we look back at the year’s newsmaking weather events and stand astonished at events across the country and around the world. How can this rear-view exercise help us in the present year?  It helps us remember and realize that major weather catastrophes happen every year and everywhere.

The lesson to be learned is that we must become a Weather Ready Nation to help prevent the loss of lives and property during major weather events like the ones we experienced throughout 2011. Earth Networks and NOAA are working to make us a Weather Ready Nation. Find out more by visiting NOAA’s Weather Ready Nation website.

About Earth Networks

Earth Networks gathers and analyzes environmental observations from around the world to help promote a better understanding of the planet and its atmosphere.
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