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The devastating Hurricane Sandy caused a huge swath of destruction in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States on October 29. The storm is responsible for at least 110 fatalities in the United States. Preliminary estimates indicate that it caused $30 billion in damages, with only one-quarter to one-half covered by insurance.
Unfortunately, Sandy is only the latest extreme weather event that severely afflicted Americans over the past two years. The Center for American Progress report “Heavy Weather: How Climate Destruction Harms Middle and Lower Income Americans” analyzes the impact of the 21 most destructive extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012. These floods, droughts, heat waves, storms, and wild fires caused at least $1 billion in damages each, and took at least 1,021 lives.
The report determined that these devastating weather events typically harmed households with income at or below the national median household income. Such households often lack the resources to quickly recover from these devastating extreme weather events.
Scientists warn that climate change will exacerbate the severity and/or frequency of these extreme weather episodes. Unless we reduce the carbon pollution responsible for climate change, the damage from these events will continue to harm middle- and lower-income Americans.
Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm, found that North America is experiencing a tremendous rise in extreme weather disasters-a nearly fivefold increase over the past three decades. The firm concluded that this is due to climate change and that this trend will continue in the future.
Many of the most economically destructive 2011 and 2012 extreme weather events harmed people with average household incomes below the U.S. median annual household income of $51,914:

  • Floods swamped households in affected counties that earned an average of $44,547 annually—14 percent less than the U.S. median income.
  • Drought and heat waves affected counties with households that earned an average of $49,340 annually—roughly 5 percent less than the U.S. median income.
  • Wildfires, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms devastated areas with households that earned an average of $50,352 annually—3 percent less than the U.S. median income.

Tropical storms and hurricanes were the only highly destructive extreme weather events that affected better-off areas on average since January 2011.
Heavy Weather includes numerous examples of the cruel phenomenon sometimes called “the climate gap”—when climate change has a disproportionate impact on society’s less fortunate people.

  • Hurricane Isaac inflicted $2 billion in damages in Louisiana and Mississippi in September 2012. The average annual income of the households in affected counties was 18 percent below the U.S. median annual household income.
  • Joplin, Missouri, which experienced the deadliest tornado in U.S. history in May 2011, has a poverty rate of 19.6 percent.
  • The 2011 Bastrop, Texas, wild fire burned more than 34,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,700 homes in a county where 14 percent of the households are at or below the poverty line.

In order to curb climate change and help communities prepare for future extreme weather events, we must adopt these and other measures.

  • The Obama administration should finalize the proposed carbon pollution reduction standard for new power plants, and adopt carbon pollution standards for existing power plants and oil refineries.
  • Existing infrastructure should be hardened to become more resilient to floods, severe storms, and other effects of climate change.
  • Congress should fully fund the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, to assist lower income families with higher utility bills due to extreme heat and cold.
  • The Obama administration and Congress should oppose budget cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to ensure that there is adequate funding for Disaster SNAP that assists people harmed by natural disasters with food purchases.
  • Replenish the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program fund, which enables communities to evaluate their disaster risks and develop plans to make them more resilient to extreme weather damages. This annual funding should equal the three year average of federal disaster recovery spending

Read the full report here (PDF).

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