From wildfires to hurricanes to tornadoes, 2021 was a devastating year in the U.S.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual report found climate disasters cost the U.S. $145 billion.
“In 2021, the U.S. experienced 20 separate weather and climate disasters that killed at least 688 people, which is the most deaths in the last decade for the continental United States," said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist. “These are all trends that are going in the wrong direction, and they are influenced by a variety of factors.”
Smith said what made 2021 different from other years is the full range of weather and climate extremes.
“These 20 events include one winter storm cold wave event, one drought heatwave event, two flood events, three tornado outbreaks, four tropical cyclones, eight severe storm events and, of course, another destructive western wildfire season," Smith said.
Included in that list is the tornado that destroyed Mayfield, Kentucky.
Tracy Warner, Graves County emergency management director, has been part of the team picking up the pieces. She says time and money are what they need to rebuild.
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life," Warner said. “We are still in debris cleanup right now. We know we’re in the millions. We don’t really have a dollar figure right now, it’s just a lot.”
As fast as the disasters tear up communities, rebuilding can seem like a never-ending process.
“I know a lot of people think they feel like things aren’t moving as fast as they should. There is just a lot of planning and process that have to go on," Warner said. “We’ve done a lot of things quickly, and now we're kind of at the phase where the debris is so much, it’s going to take a while to get it all.”
The year proved that climate change is not a distant threat. It’s hitting close to home and is part of the reason at least 688 lives were taken.
“It’s bad when you lose one, and we actually had 23 that were lost, and families are hurting," Warner said.
“For example, in the 2010s decade, the United States had more billion dollar flood events than we had in three previous decades combined, so that’s showing not only a growth in exposure but how climate change is directly influencing the extremes and influencing and damaging peoples lives and livelihoods," Smith said.
Smith worries places like Mayfield won’t have the opportunity to build up before another disaster strikes.
“A lot of communities are not fully recovering from these disasters," Smith said.
Louisiana is still recovering from the 2020 hurricanes, but that didn’t stop extreme flooding from taking over in 2021. It also suffered more damage from Hurricane Ida later in the year.
“It causes the recovery to be longer, to be more costly and not ever fully achieve the pre-disaster levels," Smith said.
Science shows that the ongoing devastation isn't likely to end anytime soon.
“Weather is not the same today as it used to be," Smith said. “2021 is the seventh year in a row in which the United States has experienced 10 or more of these separate billion dollar weather or climate-related events. So, I think that trend will likely continue into the future.”