Fourteen weather and climate disasters that hammered the U.S. in 2018 cost the U.S. an estimated $91 billion, $3.2 billion of which was due to two summer hailstorms in Colorado, according to a report released last week by the National Center for Environment Information.
It marked the eighth consecutive year with eight or more billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. and the eighth year overall with at least 10 billion-dollar disasters. The longterm average is 6.2 per year.
Of note were hurricanes Michael and Florence and the complex of Western wildfires, which primarily ravaged parts of California, though the National Center for Environment Information also underscored the impact of the Spring Creek fire in La Veta. The hurricanes and fires combined accounted for $73 billion of the $91 billion bill.
The wildfires in California set a record for the costliest, deadliest and largest wildfires since 1933 when the state began keeping wildfire records. The blazes contributed to “unprecedented damage” exceeding $40 billion in the U.S. and well-above the 10-year average number of acres burned — 8.7 million in 2018 compared with 6.8 million.
The Spring Creek fire charred 108,000 acres and destroyed more than 200 structures in late June, making it Colorado’s third-largest wildfire.
Though the Spring Creek fire cost an estimated $32 million, according to The Colorado Sun, Colorado took a worse financial pounding from two hailstorms in June and August, the latter of which pummeled Colorado Springs.
The first was a wave of storms that passed primarily through Denver and the northern Front Range on June 18-19 and racked up a $2.2 billion bill.
“All the ingredients were in place for severe hail that day,” said Paul Schlatter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Boulder. “There were multiple storms each day that hit a heavily populated part of the Front Range with 3-inch hail that went right through windshields and cars, shredded shingles on just about anything that had shingles and took off all the leaves on the trees.”
Louisville and Superior recorded some of the largest hail to hit Boulder County, Schlatter said.
Two months later on Aug. 6, Jennifer Stark was hosting the director of the National Weather Service, Louis W. Uccellini at her office in Pueblo when a forecaster pulled her out of the meeting with news of impending severe weather. The meteorologist-in-charge at the Pueblo office heard the reports of 2-inch hail and leaped out of her chair.
She knew her home in Fountain, still not repaired from a wild June hailstorm storm, was in trouble. Her husband and son were out driving, dodging the baseball-sized projectiles.
The hail was “spiky,” she said, due to the composition of the ice crystals, and busted through her concrete tile roof. Her windows were smashed, holes dotted her fences and her car had more than $9,000 in damage.
Softball-size hail injured more than a dozen people and killed two animals at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
The storm slammed Colorado and bits of Nebraska and Wyoming with $1 billion in damages, the National Center for Environment Information’s report said, $172.8 million of which was in Colorado Springs.
Schlatter and Stark acknowledged that the Front Range is no stranger to such severe storms. The primary factor contributing to the astronomical costs is the unprecedented population growth in a vulnerable area.
“The population is moving to more vulnerable areas like the Front Range or coastal cities,” Schlatter said. “That alone can increase number and severity of billion-dollar disasters.”
He continued, “With ties to climate change, flooding can be worse because with warmer (temperatures), there is more moisture in the atmosphere. Other statistics are looser, like the impact a warming climate may have on severe thunderstorms. Hail is a tough one, too, because of so many ingredients to its formation.”
Colorado was also subjected to what Urusla Rick calls a “slow-moving disaster.”
“Drought doesn’t happen in a boom in an afternoon,” the managing director of the Western Water Assessment said. “It’s a slowly building thing as we get less precipitation and the soil gets drier and drier, then it builds on itself.”
The drought spread throughout Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and cost $3 million, much of which hurt farmers and ranchers.
“Some agriculture communities that were raising cattle had to sell their cattle early, buy extra feed or ship cattle to another place to finish them,” Rick said. “That gets expensive, and if it’s several years of drought, you can have family farms go out of business entirely. And then there’s the emotional well-being costs.”
Colorado faced its fourth driest year on record in 2018 since the state began tracking water supplies 123 years ago and its seventh warmest year. At the beginning of February 2018, 90.35 percent of the state was in drought, which had eased slightly to 85.81 percent by October, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About 16 percent — mostly in the southwest corner — was rated as in exceptional drought.
For the first time in recorded history, there was a “call” on the Yampa River, meaning there was not enough water to fulfill the needs of those with water rights to the river.
“Not having water certainly affects businesses, whether agricultural or recreation,” Rick said. “Then you have cities, towns or municipalities trying to ensure that their towns don’t run dry. Those are some pretty serious impacts.”
Despite plentiful snow this winter, 91 percent of the state is still in drought, though less than 3 percent is rated as exceptional. And with projected higher-than-average temperatures to continue in Colorado, costly drought years may be reoccurring.
“We may swing between dry years and wet years,” Rick said, “But over time, we will have a drying trend. The question is how can we be resilient and prepared for what’s coming down the pipe in the communities where it hurts most?”
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