Everyone has seen countless news stories about natural disasters tearing across the United States and the globe. From devastating wildfires to rapidly intensifying hurricanes, we are beginning to experience the future of natural disasters due to climate change. In the United States alone, natural disasters are becoming much more expensive as they become more frequent and intense. From 1990 to 1999, the United States spent $213.6B on natural disasters, costing $21.4B annually . From 2020 to 2022, the US spent $456.0B on natural disasters, costing $152.0B annually. The cost of natural disasters in just these two years is over double that of all natural disasters in nine years. There are several reasons for these increased costs. The first is simply that there are now more natural disasters per year than there have been. From 1990 to 1999, there were 57 billion-dollar disasters—as the name suggests, billion-dollar disasters cause over $1 billion in direct losses. For the same three-year period from 2020-2022 discussed above, there were 60 billion dollar disasters. 

These billion-dollar disasters are occurring more frequently because climate change increases extreme weather conditions. The rising costs are also correlated with increased exposure. More assets are at risk than in previous years. Lastly, the United States experiences increased vulnerability— the damage a hazard of a given intensity causes at a location is now greater. We can look at the wildfires in Hawai’i that tore through Maui’s historic town of Lahaina for an example of what the future of natural disasters could look like. Not only was this the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than 100 years, but it was also the result of several environmental conditions that were likely made worse by climate change. The typical drought conditions that occur on the island during that time of year were exacerbated by stronger-than-usual trade winds. Stronger winds were in the area because of a pressure system affecting the island . The drought conditions made the land more dry and easily ignited, and the winds allowed it to spread rapidly. In the days following the disaster, more than 2,200 buildings, mostly residential, were burned.he damage was estimated at around $5.52 billion .

You might be wondering, who is going to pay for all of this? As Americans, we have become accustomed to the U.S. Government being called in to help if a disaster is catastrophic enough, such as the wildfires in Maui. The U.S. Government currently directs most of its disaster recovery and preparedness funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a Homeland Security branch. When a state, city, or town has a disaster, they can go through several processes with FEMA to get financial assistance to rebuild. Significantly, FEMA works primarily with governments, not individuals, to help fund recovery. This creates a system that disadvantages lower income and under-resources individuals, furthering inequality in the country. Often, individuals are left on their own with very little financial support. Since the federal government bears the burden of most costs following a disaster, there is a misalignment in incentives. Local governments need more incentives to build resilient infrastructure to withstand natural disasters better. Our current system heavily emphasizes rebuilding after a disaster rather than creating resilient infrastructure in advance, which ultimately costs the country and taxpayers more money.  Beyond costs, resilient infrastructure can save lives as we enter an era where natural disasters are becoming more and more deadly. 

Given what we know about the changing future of natural disasters, the government should shift its funding from incentivizing recovery efforts to incentivizing resilient and proactive infrastructure. Not only will this be safer, but it will also save money from rebuilding efforts in the long run. By encouraging resilient infrastructure projects, the United States can prevent excessive spending and unnecessary destruction from natural disasters. Historically, resilient infrastructure has been underfunded in the United States, with very little funding from FEMA for prevention and mitigation. To protect communities from future harm, FEMA should focus on prevention strategies by working with particularly vulnerable areas. By collaborating with the local governments in vulnerable areas that are most heavily affected by natural disasters, FEMA can help fund infrastructure that will ultimately hold up better in the face of new and changing environmental threats and save taxpayer money in the long run.