WASHINGTON – Hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters across the U.S. caused $95 billion in damage last year, according to new data, almost double the amount in 2019 and the third-highest losses since 2010.
The new figures, reported Thursday by Munich Re, a company that provides insurance to other insurance companies, are the latest sign of the growing cost of climate change. They reflect a year marked by a record number of named Atlantic storms, as well as the largest wildfires ever recorded in California.
Those losses occurred during a year that was one of the warmest on record, a trend that makes extreme rainfall, wildfires, droughts and other environmental catastrophes more frequent and intense.
"Climate change plays a role in this upward trend of losses," said Ernst Rauch, the chief climate scientist at Munich Re.
He said that continued building in high-risk areas had also contributed to the losses.
Topping the list was Hurricane Laura, which caused $13 billion in damage when it hit Louisiana in late August. Laura was one of the year's record number of 30 named storms in 2020; 12 of those storms made landfall, another record. The storms caused $43 billion in losses in North America, almost half the total for all U.S. disasters last year.
The 2020 hurricane season also was unusually devastating because climate change is making storms more likely to stall once they hit land, pumping more rain and wind into coastal towns and cities for longer periods, Rauch said.
The next costliest category of natural disasters was convective storms, which include thunderstorms, tornadoes, hailstorms and derechos, and caused $40 billion in losses last year. The derecho that hit Iowa and other Midwestern states in August caused almost $7 billion in damage, destroying corn and soybean crops.
Wildfires caused another $16 billion in losses.
The new numbers come as the insurance industry struggles to adjust to the effects of climate change. In California, officials have tried a series of rule changes designed to stop insurers from pulling out of fire-prone areas, leaving homeowners with few options.
Homeowners and governments need to do a better job of making buildings and communities more resilient to natural disasters, said Donald Griffin, a vice president at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, which represents insurance companies.
"We can't, as an industry, continue to just collect more and more money, and rebuild and rebuild and rebuild in the same way," Griffin said. "We've got to place an emphasis on preventing and reducing loss."
The data also shows another worrying trend: the lack of insurance coverage in developing countries. Of the $67 billion in losses from natural disasters across Asia last year, only $3 billion, or 4.5%, was covered by insurance. Without insurance, Rauch said, "the opportunity to recover fast after such an event is simply not there."