Motorists drive on a road covered in snow and ice on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Johns Creek, Ga. A / John Amis, AP
Failing to prepare for extreme weather events has cost the United States $1.15 trillion in economic losses from 1980 to 2010 and could cost another trillion in coming years, a Department of Homeland Security official told a Senate panel Wednesday.
"According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, future impacts of climate change project national economic losses on the order of $1.2 trillion through 2050," said David Heyman, DHS' assistant secretary for policy.
Wednesday's Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing came as a giant winter storm was bearing down on the eastern half of the United States and just two weeks after a surprise snowstorm left Atlanta paralyzed.
By the time the hearing was over, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal had declared a state of emergency for 91 of the state's 159 counties, and hundreds of thousands of customers had lost power in Georgia and North and South Carolina.
"One only needs to read the newspapers to affirm that in the face of named storms and other extreme weather events, large numbers of assets, and the communities that are defined by these assets and which support them, are not sufficiently resilient," Lindene Patton, chief climate product officer at Zurich Insurance Group, said in testimony prepared in advance of the hearing.
The cost of preparing for extreme weather would save Americans the costs of being unprepared, said Collin O'Mara, secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources. For instance, for every dollar that Delaware has invested in shore protection it has received $10 in storm protection value.
Investments in weather preparation cost local governments significantly less than recovery, according to Paul Kirshen, a research professor at the University of New Hampshire. Preparedness strategies include flood proofing, flood evacuation plans, elevating buildings, purchasing insurance and improving drainage codes and floodplain standards.
States like Delaware have invested in improving storm resilience. Delaware has been implementing projects such as wetland restoration, beach nourishment, dams, coastal impoundments and modernizing storm water infrastructure.
According to O'Mara, states that support storm preparation are suffering when federal government assists ill-prepared communities that decided against investing in storm protection. While states like Delaware spend significant funds on severe weather preparation, other communities have invested virtually nothing on such protections.
"When a disaster hits, the communities that have used their own resources, and as a result suffer less damage, are effectively penalized through the nearly full reimbursement of damages for the unprepared communities," O'Mara said.
Patton cited a Business Continuity Institute study that found 40% of businesses affected by extended periods of severe weather never recovered or reopened.
In January, canceled and delayed flights disrupted the travel plans of roughly 30 million fliers and cost them more than $2.5 billion in lost work time and out-of-pocket costs for everything from meals to an extra night's hotel stay, according to masFlight, a data software firm that focuses on air travel.
Establishing infrastructure protection that can withstand natural disasters is the best bet to save money for the future. Two years ago, Heyman said, only 15 states had climate-protection plans. Now, 36 states have such plans.
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