Rebuild by Design – Atlas of Disaster

The non-profit group, Rebuild by Design recently released a new report, “Atlas of Disaster” that uncovered startling data. The report shows 90% of US counties have met the cost threshold for a federal disaster declaration in the past decade. According to NOAA data, from 2017 to 2021 alone, a total of 89 climate-fueled events caused an estimated 4,557 deaths and over $788 billion dollars in damage across the country. The report analyzes a decade of climate vulnerability info at the state/county level, including energy reliability, social vulnerability, and other analysis. See here for their Rhode Island analysis.

This Center for Disease Control graphic illustrates the far-reaching and often complex nature of climate impacts. Over the course of weeks, months, or even years, cascading health impacts can continue to develop well after severe weather occurs, especially in vulnerable communities. These impacts include the increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths, the spread of food and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, as well as threats to mental health.CDC: Climate & Health

Looking at nationwide patterns, Rebuild by Design identified significant economic impacts from climate disasters that extend far beyond the immediate losses. In affected areas, the report found that 40% of businesses do not reopen following a disaster, and another 25% fail within one year. The study also found that 90% of businesses fail within 12 months if they cannot reopen within five days of the incident. The report also highlighted Urban Institute research that shows people in disaster-affected areas often experience significant drops in credit scores – a financial impact that can persist for years. 

Examining climate impacts individually, flood damages alone could cost the U.S. another $72 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Atlas report. Yet, proactively installing climate resilient infrastructure could mitigate future costs. Information from the National Institute of Building Sciences states, for each dollar spent on flood mitigation the nation saves an average of $62 in future flood related damages. By 2050, NOAA data projects moderate flooding will occur more than 10 times as frequently as it does today, yet only 20% of Americans invest in flood insurance.  

Over the next 30 years, sea level rise will increasingly generate high tides and storm surge heights that will reach further inland. Warmer oceans increase the amount of water evaporating into the air, which later combines with storm systems, producing more intense precipitation that current infrastructure lacks the capacity to handle. 

Despite flooding being the most frequent disaster occurrence in the nation, extreme heat remains the deadliest. Heat wave frequency and duration has risen steadily from an average of two heat waves per year in the 1960s to six per year during 2010-2022. According to the CDC, heat was a contributing factor in 1,577 U.S. deaths throughout 2021, a 56% jump from 1,012 in 2018. It’s critical to note, deaths caused by extreme heat are often undercounted because of the lack of a comprehensive tracking mechanism for healthcare providers. 

The Atlas report also emphasizes that while extreme heat is the number one US weather-related cause of death, it does not fit the criteria for a federal disaster declaration which addresses only physical property loss. Communities struggling with heat impacts have limited federal funding support to deal with the health issues caused by extreme temperatures. 

For all climate impacts, the Atlas report highlights the fact that while these disasters are happening in communities across the entire country, they are not experienced equally. For example, intense heat exposure puts those without access to cooling appliances and centers at risk of dehydration, stroke, or even death – mainly targeting the elderly, low-income households, and those with preexisting health conditions. Urban areas constructed with heat-absorbing surfaces, such as concrete and pavement can produce temperatures 10-15°C hotter than in surrounding communities. These “heat islands” are often found in frontline and low-income communities. 

Prior to a disaster, those who lack resources, have minimal trust in the government and whose physical health or disability prevent them from evacuating face a greater risk of negative health impacts, injury, and death. During a disaster, residents living close to hazardous infrastructure, like sewer treatment plants or contaminated sites, are at risk of toxins exposure. And following a disaster, those who don’t trust government may be unable to access resources and experience physical and mental trauma due to the exposure to hazards such as contaminated waters, smoke, pollution, toxic mold, falling trees, live electric wires, and pests.