Hurricane Irene Bears Down on the U.S., Likely Adding to a Brutal Disaster Toll

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Hurricane Irene (Photo: Getty Images News)

Come on, Irene — it’s hurricane season. Hurricane Irene, which slashed across Puerto Rico earlier this week and just missed the Dominican Republic, is headed for the southeastern U.S. Irene is expected to strengthen to Category 3 and could become a Category 4 storm, with at least 131-m.p.h. winds as it approaches the southeastern U.S. this week. While the Bahamas and other low-lying Caribbean islands will face the brunt of Irene first, the hurricane poses a threat for much of the East Coast, with the Carolinas seeing the greatest risk.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Federal Emergency Management Authority head Craig Fugate warned that any damage from Irene could be severe:

We’re saying the entire East Coast [could be impacted]. The impacts could be widespread.

If and when Irene makes landfall, it will be the first hurricane to hit the continental U.S. since 2008, when Hurricane Ike pounded Texas. It’s not that the last few hurricane seasons haven’t produced storms in the Atlantic — there have actually been quite a few. We were just lucky that none of those hurricanes hit the U.S. Inevitably, that luck was going to change.

(PHOTOS: Hurricane Irene Strengthens As It Heads to the U.S.)

But here’s a particularly scary thought: even before Irene or any other hurricane makes landfall on the continental U.S., 2011 has already been a devastating year for weather-related disasters. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. has so far experienced nine separate disasters, each with an economic cost of $1 billion or more — tying a record set in 2008. (Usually, the U.S. experiences three to four billion-dollar weather events a year.) Beyond the cost — which adds up to about $35 billion so far — at least 589 people have died in those events, including 160 in the terrifying Joplin, Mo., tornado this May. Other billion-dollar disasters include:

  • The Groundhog Day blizzard on the East Coast, which cost more than $2 billion
  • The Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest tornadoes in April, which cost more than $9 billion and killed more than 300 people
  • The Mississippi River flooding, which cost up to $4 billion
  • The Southwest heat wave and drought, which has cost at least $5 billion

(VIDEO: Michael Brown, Former FEMA Administrator, on Hurricane Katrina)

Billion-dollar disasters aren’t new — the U.S. has had 108 of them over the past 31 years, totaling more than $750 billion. (The figures are adjusted for inflation.) And 2011 may just be a taste of the future. Both the populations and the economies of many vulnerable areas have grown considerably in recent years (check out this photo of Miami Beach in 1926 and the same crowded coastal area today). More people and more development in parts of the country hit by storms and floods mean more expensive disasters. And that’s without considering the possible impact that manmade climate change could have in amplifying some extreme weather events, like floods, heat waves and hurricanes. As Jim Harper writes in Scientific American, researchers are even considering adding a Category 6 to hurricane ratings — one with no upper limit for wind speed:

Now the ferocity forecast for the century adds to this classification problem. “The severe hurricanes might actually become worse. We may have to invent a category 6,” says David Enfield, a senior scientist at the University of Miami and former physical oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This new level wouldn’t be an arbitrary relabeling. Global satellite data from the past 40 years indicate that the net destructive potential of hurricanes has increased, and the strongest hurricanes are becoming more common — especially in the Atlantic.

This trend could be related to warmer seas or it could simply be history repeating itself. Data gathered earlier than the 1970s, although unreliable, show cycles of quiet decades followed by active ones. The quiet ’60s, ’70s and ’80s ended in 1995, the year that brought Felix and Opal, among others, and resulted in $13 billion in damages and more than 100 deaths in the U.S.

Hurricane Irene will almost certainly add another major disaster to 2011’s toll — perhaps another billion-dollar event. The final cost will depend not just on how strong Irene turns out to be and where it hits but how prepared the East Coast is. And the Carolinas in particular may not be ready — the states haven’t suffered a major quake since Floyd in 1999, and funding has been cut for emergency management.

(MORE: How Do Weather Reporters Stay Safe in a Hurricane?)

At least now we can accurately predict when and where storms like Irene can hit. But we may be losing that capacity — without new government funding, there might be a gap of at least a year and a half, and perhaps even longer, during which NOAA would have no operational satellite circling the planet on a north-south orbit. Which is troubling, because those are the sorts of satellites that allow forecasters to predict severe storms a week or more before they make landfall, as NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said last week:

Whether the gap is longer than that depends on whether we get the money in the next budget … I would argue that these satellites are critically important to saving lives and property and to enabling homeland security.

As the first major hurricane of the year bears down on the U.S., remember this: when it comes to extreme weather, we pay now, or we pay later.

(MORE: This Summer’s Hurricane Season Will Be Serious. Buckle Up)

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.