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Good News, You're Not Paranoid! 2012 Really Was a Historically Bad Year for Weather Disasters

All in all, the U.S. suffered 11 meteorological calamities costing $1 billion or more.


If the memory of last year's seemingly endless series of traumatic weather events still lingers, it's no surprise: 2012 was the second-most costly year for meteorological disasters in the United States since 1980, clocking in at a staggering  $110 billion in damages and 377 deaths.

That's according to a new, detailed post mortem on 2012's weather and climate put out by the National Climatic Data Center, which created the map you see above (there's also this state-specific map). It's easy to see how Sandy wound up being the most expensive disaster, with $65 billion in damages – the vicious ultra-storm turned New York's subways into aquaducts and rearranged the face of the Atlantic coastline. But the analysis might contain a few surprises for people who don't follow weather news religiously.

Taking the No. 2 slot, for instance, was the great drought and its wildfires that lasted through the entire year, creating a deadly environment for crops and cattle and dinging the nation to the tune of $30 billion. It was the largest U.S. drought on record since the 1930s. There was also a high number of savage severe-weather strikes that lashed out with strong tornadoes, beginning with an unusual January outbreak in the Mississippi Valley (making it the third-most tornadic January on record) and climaxing with the weirdly powerful derecho that gusted over the eastern half of the country, snapping trees like straws and blowing out power to millions.

All in all, there were 11 disasters costing $1 billion or more, a scourge from the skies and sea that was likely influenced in part by climate change. In the past quarter-century, only 2005 incurred a harsher economic blow, with $160 billion in damages (in then-dollars) coming from four land-falling hurricanes.

To recap, here are a few of the lowlights from last year's weather that the NCDC has put on its map:

Superstorm Sandy

The tidal surge was so great that this dude could jet ski through the New Jersey streets:

The derecho of June 29 - July 2:

Five million people had no power and 22 died. Here's the storm as it moved over LaPorte, Indiana:

(Kevin Gould / NOAA)

Witness its force tearing through this parking lot, as seen from a security camera. At times, the derecho's winds topped out over 90 m.p.h.:

Texas tornadoes of April 2 - 3

Here's one of the monster twisters:

Those are truck trailers flying around in the sky, by the way:

Southeast and Ohio Valley tornadoes of March 2 - 3

These folks get a little to close to a huge tornado in West Liberty, Kentucky:

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.