29 june 2011

US counts the cost of extreme weather
Financial Times June 28, 2011 By Sheila McNulty in Midland

Fires burn in the hills above Los Alamos, a nuclear site in New Mexico

Firefighters on Tuesday battled a wildfire that threatened a government nuclear facility in New Mexico, raising fears about the safety of radioactive materials at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

On Monday, a spot fire at the laboratory was quickly contained and officials said that no contaminated material was released. Only essential employees have been allowed on to the property.

The events in New Mexico, which forced thousands from their homes, cap a season of severe weather in the US this spring that has included extremes of dry and wet not seen since record keeping began a century ago.

A “punishing series of billion-dollar disasters” brought the greatest flood in recorded history to the Lower Mississippi River, a deadly tornado season across the south, the worst fire season in the south-west and the worst drought in Texan history, notes Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground, a weather forecaster.

Elsewhere, authorities have voiced concerns about floods in Nebraska, where a nuclear plant’s parking lot is under water.

About 46 per cent of the US has been abnormally wet or dry this spring. Severe weather is usually recorded in 21 per cent of the country, Mr Masters said. “If you weren’t floating away in floods, you were baking in the heat.”

Midland, in west Texas, has received 4mm of rain since the start of the year, a fraction of the 101mm it would normally receive, the National Weather Service said.

There are black patches of grass outside the city, where wildfires have taken hold. As of July 1, the city will permit citizens to water their lawns just two days a week, with fines of up to $500 for violators.

Producers have been heavily watering pecans, alfalfa and coastal Bermuda grass. “But with the dry, windy conditions, they couldn’t make much headway,” said the Texas Crop Weather Report on west Texas. Since November, the Texas Forest Service and area fire departments have responded to 12,779 fires that have burnt 1.33m hectares. The “extreme risk of wildfire’’ remains.

Hundreds of people have died in tornadoes, while many have lost homes or livelihoods in this year’s disasters. “The human losses, we can’t even speak to that,” says John-Michael Riley, a professor in the department of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University.

But he has made a tally of economic losses – up to $500m for Mississippi alone and up to $1.5bn for the mid-south region, which includes Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and east Tennessee. “There is still a lot of uncertainty about what the final tally will be,’’ Mr Riley says.

Such losses tend to be short term, said Bernard Weinstein, business economics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Insurance money and state assistance can serve as an economic stimulus.

New Orleans, for example, received billions of dollars in assistance and insurance funding after hurricane Katrina. “There is a $15,000bn economy in the US,” Mr Weinstein said. “We are able to absorb those types of hits.”

But if the kind of extreme weather witnessed recently becomes the norm, this might change.

“It is highly improbable that the remarkable extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011 could have all happened in such a short period of time without some powerful climate-altering force at work,” he said.

“I expect that by 20 to 30 years from now, extreme weather years like we witnessed in 2010 will become the new normal.”

>>> Back to list