William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Cole Hoyt


Major natural disasters in the United States are occurring more frequently and are causing more damage and destruction than ever before in the nation’s history. With the increased number and intensity of natural disasters, America’s failing infrastructure and current resiliency plan are inadequate to successfully prepare and respond to such catastrophic events. As a direct result, natural disasters in the United States cause scores of deaths and injuries, inflict billions of dollars’ worth of damage per disaster, and make it increasingly more difficult for Americans to recover and return to a sense of normalcy.

The World Health Organization (“WHO”), offers one of the most comprehensive definitions of a natural disaster: "A natural disaster is an act of nature of such magnitude as to create a catastrophic situation in which the day-to-day patterns of life are suddenly disrupted and people are plunged into helplessness and suffering, and, as a result, need food, clothing, shelter, medical and nursing care and other necessities of life, and protection against unfavourable environmental factors and conditions."

Natural disasters in the United States have occurred long before the nation’s birth. Notable natural disasters in the past few centuries include the Great Galveston Storm of 1900, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the Johnstown Flood in 1889, and the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. While these natural disasters differ by type and region, each was incredibly destructive and together caused thousands of deaths and an unimaginable amount of damage and ruin.

In the past three decades, the increase of cost and destructiveness of natural disasters has spiked. The five most costly disasters in American history have all occurred since 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”). Similarly, “[i]n California, 15 of the 20 largest fires in state history have burned since 2000.” The Camp Fire, which is now the “deadliest and most destructive wildfire” in California’s history, killed over 71 people, and destroyed more than 9,800 homes. Further, in the United States, “[n]ine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990.” This dangerous trend will only continue, promoting even more damage and destruction. As National Center for Atmospheric Research senior climate scientist Kevin Trenberth explains, “[a]s climate change makes oceans hotter there is more heat—more energy—available, so there is likely to be an increase in hurricane activity. That can be the size of the storms, their duration and their intensity.” Instead of denying reality, stakeholders at all levels of government and business should make strong efforts to mitigate as much damage as possible.

In the United States, natural disasters such as floods, intense rain, hurricanes, wildfires, mudslides, tornadoes, earthquakes, and heat waves have become more costly, frequent, and destructive in the past three decades. There is a trifecta of reasons why this has been the case.

First, “increases in population and material wealth over the last several decades are an important factor for higher damage potential.” Thus, as America’s population and wealth continue to grow, the cost of natural disasters will continue to rise. Additionally, many Americans live in disaster prone areas, which can lead to even more damage and destruction.

Second, the United States’ failing infrastructure makes the country more prone to deterioration and collapse as natural disasters become more powerful. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a “D+” score for America’s infrastructure overall. Simply put, pothole filled roads, weak dams, crumbling bridges, and outdated electricity grids are no match for major storms. Category 4 hurricanes bring sustained winds of over 130 miles per hour, which can easily down power lines, cause catastrophic damage to buildings, and snap trees in half, making roads and other transportation routes inaccessible.

Third, climate change has had a noticeable impact on the destructive power of natural disasters. According to NOAA, “[c]limate change is also playing a role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters.” It has also been observed that “[c]limate change is making some kinds of disasters more frequent. Studies show that large wildfires have become more common in the western United States because global warming has made Western forests drier.” Further, “[g]lobal sea level is rising. . . . Recent analyses reveal that the rate of sea level rise in the last century was greater than during any preceding century in at least 2,800 years.” As the National Park Service has noted, “[s]ea level change and storm surge pose considerable risks to infrastructure . . . .” Even in recent hurricanes, scientists have found that climate change is playing a major role in how destructive natural disasters have become. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, researchers were able to “calculate [that] climate change caused Harvey’s rainfall to be 15 to 38 percent greater than it would have been otherwise.” This trio of factors makes the United States extremely vulnerable and exposed to significant natural disasters, and it is imperative that the United States prepare and plan to mitigate any potential damage from natural disasters.