Top 10 States Hit by Extreme Weather in 2011

by Andrew Freedman, Alyson Kenward and Mike Lemonick, cross-posted from Climate Central

Texas, Alabama and Missouri topped the list of states hardest hit by the unrelenting assault of extreme weather in 2011.

Severe weather across much of the nation has raised the question of whether global warming has already begun to influence shorter-term weather patterns, and the specter of even more extreme years to come as global temperatures continue to rise.

According to climate studies, the short answer is yes: the new climate environment created by global warming is more conducive to some extreme events, particularly heat waves and heavy precipitation events: these are now more likely to occur and be more intense when they do take place. Climate models have more difficulty predicting how climate change may be influencing other types of extremes, such as severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, but a warming climate provides more fuel to these events in the form of increased water vapor and heat in the atmosphere.

And those extreme events — searing heat waves, parching drought, deadly tornadoes, blizzards and floods — cost billions of dollars in damage, affected millions of lives and tragically, killed more than a thousand people across the U.S.

By some measures, 2011 was the most extreme year for the U.S. since reliable record-keeping began in the 19thcentury — and the costs have been enormous: according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2011 set a record for the most billion dollar disasters in a single year. There were 12, breaking the old record of nine set in 2009. The aggregate damage from these 12 events totals at least $52 billion, NOAA found.

While extreme weather knows no boundaries, and the impact of those events was felt coast to coast, Climate Central looked at the number of extreme events that affected each state to determine the 10 states that were clobbered the worst. According to Climate Central’s analysis, Texas tops that list of hardest hit, with a costly — and deadly — combination of intense drought, a punishing heat wave, the worst wildfires in state history, and plenty of tornadoes. Rounding out the top 10 was Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey.

Climate Central’s analysis factored the death toll in each state, damage costs, the disruption caused to daily life, and how unusual the events were compared with what transpires in an average year.

But for these 10 states, little of what transpired was average as extreme weather rewrote the record books in 2011.

1. Texas

Texas was hit by eight of the nation’s billion dollar disasters — the most of any state in the country. Of the eight, the three most devastating were drought, heat, and wildfires. The drought still grips the state, and it is the most intense one-year drought on record. Unlike past dry periods, the damage to the state has been aggravated by record-breaking heat. Groundwater levels in much of the state have fallen to their lowest levels in more than 60 years, according to observations from NASA satellites.

The heat during the summer of 2011 was relentless, with many cities smashing records for the longest stretch of 100-degree days, including Dallas with a record 70 straight days with 100-degree heat, and San Angelo with a whopping 98 days above 100. July 2011 was the hottest month ever recorded statewide, and Amarillo, Texas, reached 111 degrees F on June 26, an all-time record high for that location where records date back to 1892.

The combination of drought and unusually hot conditions during this summer helped fuel massive wildfires, and the 2011 wildfire season was the worst in Texas’ history, with about 4 million acres burned from November 2010 through November 2011, causing $750 million in damage and killing 10 people, including four firefighters.

Lake and reservoir levels have fallen so low that they are revealing entire towns flooded decades ago at the bottom of lakes and reservoirs. Ranchers have been forced to sell off large portions of their herds early, which is likely to raise beef prices by reducing future beef supplies.

2. Alabama

Alabama was ground zero for the largest tornado outbreak in American history, when more than 100 twisters gouged paths across the state in late April, killing 240 people.

Some of the most intense tornadoes flattened heavily populated areas. One twister, shown nationally on live TV, tore through downtown Tuscaloosa and went on to destroy parts of Birmingham. Another monster EF-5 twister, with winds stronger than 200 mph, tracked across northern Alabama, killing 78 people, becoming one of the deadliest single tornadoes in modern American history.

According to the Storm Prediction Center, Alabama saw the most tornadoes of any state this year, with 170. The staggering death toll and damage these storms caused led to a wave of Alabama state pride, with the mantra “We are Alabama” spreading throughout social media networks in the storms’ wake.

3. Missouri

Missouri was the site of America’s worst tornado disaster since 1950, when a massive tornado, nearly a mile wide, wiped large portions of the city of Joplin off the map on May 22. With winds greater than 200 mph, that tornado killed nearly 160 people, making it the seventh deadliest in U.S. history.

Tornadoes were just one prong of the deadly onslaught of extreme weather in Missouri, as a combination of heavy spring rains and upstream snowmelt sent the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers surging over their banks. According to NOAA, in an average year, the Missouri River channels 24.8 million acre feet of water. This year, it carried 24.3 million acre feet in May and June alone. When the Army Corps of Engineers essentially blew up the levees to save the small town of Cairo, Ill., floodwaters inundated around 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland.

4. North Carolina

April 2011 was the most active tornado month in U.S. history with 753 tornadoes. North Carolina was among the states worst hit. On April 16, multiple tornadoes ripped through Raleigh and nearby towns, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Thirty-eight people died in a two-day April tornado outbreak that spread through 10 states; 22 were in North Carolina.

North Carolina was also one of the first states walloped by Hurricane Irene in August. With its immense 450-mile span, the storm battered the North Carolina coast with rain and driving 60-80 mph winds for nearly 12 hours. Half a million people lost power during the storm, and the gusting winds generated waves high enough to demolish piers and damage homes along the coastline. All told, the cost to North Carolina from tornadoes and Irene is estimated at $3.2 billion.

5. Oklahoma

In 2011, Oklahomans suffered through a brutal combination of severe drought and intense heat, the likes of which have not been seen since the infamous Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. The Sooner State had the hottest summer of any state in U.S. history, narrowly beating neighboring Texas, and eclipsing a record that dated to 1934. Oklahoma’s average day and nighttime temperature during July was a scorching 88.9 degrees F, the warmest in any state during any month on record.

For an idea of how hot it was in Oklahoma last summer, consider this: In Grandfield, the temperature reached or exceeded 100 degrees on a record-setting 97 days from mid-April to Sept. 1.

On top of record heat, last February, the state froze its way through the coldest temperature on record: -31 degrees F, and the state’s heaviest 24-hour snowfall on record, when 27 inches fell in the town of Spavinaw.

And if that wasn’t enough, Oklahomans also struggled with other weather hazards, including the largest hailstone in state history, some of which measured half a foot in diameter.

6. Tennessee

The good news for Tennessee this year was that the drought that plagued states to the southwest — Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas — didn’t make it up this far. But for the Volunteer State, a little more drought might have been a good thing.

Tennessee had an unusually wet spring, part of a broader-scale deluge that spurred massive flooding along the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers. On May 10, the Mississippi River crested at 47.9 feet (14.6 m) in Memphis, the highest level reached there since 1937. The damage in Memphis alone is estimated to have cost $320 million, according to NOAA.

Floods weren’t the only lethal weather to strike Tennessee during the spring. Although it did not suffer the brunt of these events, Tennessee was also affected by five massive severe weather outbreaks, each of which were billion dollar disasters. During the largest of the tornado outbreaks, which occurred between April 24-28, 32 people were killed in Tennessee. One EF-4 tornado tracked across parts of Chattanooga, causing major damage in the community of Apison where eight people were killed and 100 injured. When you add in the heat wave that blasted most of the eastern half of the U.S. in July, the total damage from weather and climate-related disasters added up to nearly $4 billion.

7. Kansas

The massive heat wave and drought that devastated Texas and Oklahoma didn’t hit Kansas quite as hard, but it was bad enough to help push the Jayhawk State into the top 10 this year. By midsummer, much of the southwestern part of the state was suffering under “exceptional drought” conditions — it ended up being the ninth driest year ever recorded — and by year’s end, there was still no relief in sight. Wichita had more 100-degree-plus days than any year on record, beating out even the Dust Bowl summer of 1936.

As of May, the state had seen unusually few tornadoes, but that didn’t last: powerful thunderstorms, tornadoes, and punishing hail swept the state in June, July, and August. To top it all off, a 5.6-intensity earthquake struck on Nov. 5. The quake didn’t cause much damage, but combined agricultural losses from the heat and drought topped $4 billion.

8. Connecticut

Snowstorms aren’t usually news in Connecticut — but 2011 was hardly usual. Hartford was buried under a record-setting 57 inches of snow in January, making it the all-time snowiest month in state history. Then, nearly two months before the next winter began, Connecticut was blasted by the worst October snowstorm in 200 years. The heavy wet snow, which cost the state more than $500 million, sent trees and tree limbs falling onto power lines, leaving more than 700,000 people without heat or lights. In the worst power failure in state history, many didn’t get their electricity back for more than a week.

In August, tropical storm Irene pummeled the state with heavy rains and gale-force winds that caused devastating floods and turned the lights out on more than 650,000 people. Some areas were pounded with as much as eight inches of rain in just 24 hours.

9. Vermont

Just as most of the Northeast thought they had escaped the worst of Irene’s wrath, the super-saturated tropical storm ravaged Vermont. The furious rains battered more than 2,000 roads spanning 500 miles in the state, paralyzing commerce, stranding people, and demolishing thousands of homes and businesses. More than 175 roads were completely destroyed and have only been rebuilt months later in what has been described as a model of fast-paced recovery from a disaster.

This all came after one of the snowiest winters on record, which produced record snowmelt. In May, heavy rain and all that melting snow drove Lake Champlain to its highest level on record, flooding several nearby towns. Record-setting rains helped set the stage for Irene’s damage by saturating the ground and putting streams and rivers at unusually high levels when the storm arrived.

Vermont officials say the total damage costs from Irene will be between $175 and $250 million.

10. New Jersey

Hurricane Irene roared into New Jersey to become one of the state’s deadliest and costliest storms, as well as the state’s wettest storm in more than a century. Tropical downpours sent rivers and streams overflowing, with nine rivers rising to their highest level ever. The flooding closed 300 roads and highways and interrupted train service for days.

The bill for hurricane damage in New Jersey stands at $1.4 billion already, and at least seven people died during the storm. Then, two weeks later, a second round of drenching rain — the remains of Tropical Storm Lee — swept across the state, triggering even more flooding. All told, it was the wettest August and September New Jersey has seen in 117 years.

Just as the Garden State began to dry out, a freak autumn snowstorm hit over the Halloween weekend. The wet, heavy snow stuck to leaves that hadn’t fallen from the trees. The result: falling branches that blocked roads and downed power lines, leaving half a million people without electricity, some of them for a week.

Climate Central is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is comprised of journalists and climate scientists dedicated to communicating accurate and compelling climate science information.

This piece was originally published at Climate Central, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is comprised of journalists and climate scientists dedicated to communicating accurate and compelling climate science information.

This piece has been updated.

25 Responses to Top 10 States Hit by Extreme Weather in 2011

  1. Rob Honeycutt says:

    I always wonder if the fact that red states seem to get particularly hard hit with weather extremes (Texas drought, mid-west tornadoes and such) will end up being a factor in the ultimate acceptance of climate change in the minds of the public. It’s those hard right-wing regions are getting repeatedly hammered by the extreme weather the science has been projecting for decades now, is that going to start to eat away at the support of the conservative base?

    It’s an ironical twist to the whole thing.

  2. Mo Rage says:

    Great point, Rob Honeycutt.

    Here’s hoping, eh?

  3. fj says:

    NYC lucked out w/ Hurricane Irene but, barely it seems.

    The storm surge was 3.6 feet and if it had been 1 foot more at 4.6 feet the subway tunnels going under the East River would have been flooded and would have flooded the whole system; and the estimate is that it would have taken about 29 days to pump the water out in a heroic effort as reported by Columbia University Professor Klaus Jacob, one of the nation’s foremost experts on transit and climate change.

    Normal economic activity in NYC is something like $4 billion a day which would have been greatly impacted if the storm surge had been 4.6 feet instead of 3.6. The fear at the time was that it could have been as high as 10 feet which is why the subway system was closed down; a New York City first.

    via transportation nation at

    It any case, Upstate NY got hit pretty bad and it’s been reported that one town in Catskills lost 300 out of 400 homes in the deluge as Hurricane Irene made its way up to Vermont and Canada.

  4. Leif says:

    Society will metamorphose from a consuming caterpillar to a pollinating butterfly. Fossil fuel and rapacious banks can be brought down. I do not mean “can be brought down” in a violent manor, but in that Corporations, now being “people” and all, will be shamed into accepting responsibility for their contribution to environmental degradation. And, no doubt “violent” in their eyes, forced to pay for it. If I throw a paper cup out the car window I can be fined ~$100. Corporations throw tons of stuff into the commons every second and get way with it by telling us dilution is the solution to pollution. Now that they are PEOPLE they must be “taught” to play well with others. We the people must do the teaching. Or pay the price. Not many chances left. If not now, when?

  5. J says:

    I’m from Texas and I can answer that question fairly easily – NO – unless you’re from Austin (more liberal than the other big cities). Just look at our governor. . . We are a very conservative state with very conservative radio talk shows and a church on just about every street corner. And don’t even think about mentioning NPR, Obama, gay rights, global warming or pro-choice in any kind of progressive light. Most just think that our drought and heat are only temporary. It rained once and it will rain again, is the main thought of those who live here.

    It was very unsettling to be surrounded by the fires this past summer. You’ve seen the pictures of fire and smoke everywhere. I lived it. . . You could smell and see the smoke all around you. We took pictures of all the items in our house for insurance purposes just in case the fires reached us. Sports practices were cancelled because of the fires and thick smoke. Roads were shut down. Every day we would see the digital signs on the highway telling us to conserve water and that burn bans were in place because of extreme fire danger. No fireworks on the 4th of July. But still, people don’t understand. I was driving behind a man down I-10 towards Boerne who threw his smoldering cigarette out the window towards the brown grass median. People run up crazy water bills and water late at night to keep their grass green even though we are under stage 2 water restrictions. People don’t understand here. Our Texas politicians don’t help matters. They are so conservative when it comes to the environment that they are backwards. It is a bad bad problem. . . and Texas is at the mercy of extreme conservatism.

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Boycott Koch products, boycott the commercial consumers of Koch products. Boycott Rush’s advertisers.

    If you own shares, attend AGMs and ask questions. Companies are very sensitive about what goes on at AGMs, this could be more effective than you realize. Can’t attend yourself, then think about who gets your proxies. Executive salaries obscene then vote against them.

    Ask your retirement fund about their voting, expect some really blank looks. Shift the pittance that remains of your retirement fund – actually that is something I can do, sort of annoying when I realise my money helped save Tillotson.

  7. KenL says:

    The Great Nashville Flood occurred in spring of 2010, not 2011.

    I happened to be there that weekend…I was a half-mile away from the building that floated down I-24:

    If we could arrange for climate skeptics to witness spectacles like this, some minds would be changed….

  8. J says:

    Over the summer the San Antonio Express News publicly embarrassed excessive water abusers by printing their names and/or businesses in a newspaper article titled “A Green Lawn AT Any Price” along with information on how much water they used. Among them were a former NBA basketball star, a Mormon church, and a wealthy high school. Some of the comments made by the water abusers was amazingly insensitive while others said they would change their water habits.

  9. A Jessen says:

    Good news! We can at least (supposedly) diffuse the Arctic permafrost time-bomb. Of course, this is one micro-regional experiment under today’s levels of warming, not even the warming already “in the pipeline” and expected to manifest over the coming decades…

  10. Michael T says:

    Gingrich Says He’s Scrapping Climate Change Chapter From Upcoming Book

    GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich said Thursday he’s axing a chapter on climate change from his forthcoming book — though the intended author of the section said that was news to her, according to National Journal.

    The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month the book will more or less be a sequel to the former House Speaker’s 2007 book, “A Contract with the Earth,“ describing it as a ”collection of essays by various businesspeople and scientists.” The Times said it would include a chapter on climate change by Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech who has said there is “no debate” about the reality of climate change and “the fact that humans are the primary cause.”

  11. Spike says:

    A UK scientist telling our second warmest year as it is:

    Dr Chris Huntingford, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said the temperature increase was “in agreement with simulations by many independent climate centres around the world”.

    “As each year passes and we hear that a warming record has been broken, or nearly broken again, it provides further evidence that unfortunately we are not just seeing a natural cycle of global warming, and that instead humans are having an effect on the climate,” said Dr Huntingford, who works with climate models to understand the implications of increased levels of greenhouse gases.

    He said that despite the global economic crisis, emissions remained high and there was a feeling that economic growth was “totally aligned to the need for burning fossil fuels”.

    “There is a huge challenge ahead to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to stay below 2C of global warming, and without damaging the economy,” he said.

    “At present, there is an almost one-to-one correlation between global GDP and magnitude of carbon dioxide emissions, so new energy technologies are desperately needed that break that link.”

  12. Peter Mizla says:

    By 2020, with the droughts becoming more common, and 100 degree days starting in June and ending in September- the people of Texas may begin to wonder. Its only going to become worse, much worse. By 2030 its going to be hell.

  13. Robert Nagle says:

    It really is amazing that people in Texas and other fossil-friendly states don’t see the disconnect. ON the other hand, weather reports rarely make the connection between extreme events and climate change. Everything is an act of god– so when Rick Perry advocates turning to prayer as a solution, it sorta makes sense.

  14. a face in the clouds says:

    There are many lasting memories from the Summer of ’11, but the most disturbing occurred during a visit to a Fort Worth nursing home where residents were coming to grips with the likelihood they would not live long enough to be evacuated in the event of a power failure and loss of air conditioning. Not far away, a former neighbor of the person we were visiting still maintained a remarkably green lawn by watering in the middle of the afternoon. On this particular day the runoff flowed freely down the street toward a home where some of the hardiest, toughest cactus plants in this part of the country looked like melted plastic.

    There were also the unforgettable sights of large, chalky dust devils rocking cars back and forth along the new road construction in Bastrop County the week before the fire, and the wild birds landing all around us begging for water every time we went outside. And who could forget the “Mrs. Bundy” look on Governor Perry’s face when he returned from his tour of the West Texas wildfires? Or his attempt to blame it all on a homeless man frying eggs in the woods? And how about the train wreck formerly known as Texas Monthly apologizing for putting Perry on the cover of its annual “Bum Steer Awards” edition? That alone illustrates the depths of the rot in Texas.

    Then there are the memories of what we didn’t see or hear, especially children. This part of town used to sound like one giant playground in the summertime, but with each passing year the heat has forced kids inside and away from the sun for longer and longer periods. During the Silent Summer of ’11, they usually didn’t come out until sunset.

    The most memorable moment was my daughter asking how much longer Texas would be habitable. She wanted to know where to move when she graduated from college. Where would it be safe? I didn’t know. The best I could offer was a tape recording of a Native American blessing given at last summer’s anniversary of the loss of a Texas ghost town destroyed long ago by Mother Nature. The holy man, who comes from a native nation thought until recently to be extinct, reminded the audience that our eyes, ears and feet point in the same direction for a good reason.

  15. BBHY says:

    When it finally becomes obvious that it is not a temporary condition then the conservative politicians and talk shows will claim it is because of “liberals” and of course the sheeple will believe what they are told.

  16. Rob Honeycutt says:

    There are always going to be individuals who will reject it no matter what. But what I’m talking about is a shift in the general awareness and willingness to start accepting what is happening to them.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    Your insightful first-hand observations would be a treasure to historians in the future. I hope you put it in some archival format (e.g. acid free paper) along with date, location and as much of your identity as you care to leave to posterity.

  18. Peter Mizla says:

    the republicans and right wing have gone to the point of no return- they will not be able to wiggle out of saying global warming is a hoax.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They’ll just blame the gays, the Carmnist ‘water-melons’ and the other usual suspects for provoking ‘God’s wrath’. We could see even more extreme clerico-fascist outbursts. Surely by now it must be plain that there is a large constituency, assiduously fomented and cultivated by the Right and the denialist industry, who are quite incapable of rational thought, and they will never, no matter what, see reason. In fact they reject reason, science and knowledge, preferring obdurate faith, brainwashed into them from birth.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Watching them do exactly that for the last twenty years has not left me hopeful that you will be proved correct, but I hope so. Then, the question must be, what is to be done with the knowing liars and disinformers? The tobacco harm denialists got away with killing millions-indeed they are still active in the poor world. That they escaped justice was a tremendous moral debacle, one of hundreds typical of really existing market capitalism.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I like Newt-Newt personifies everything I have felt and learned about the Right since I began to appreciate that some human beings were quite toxic, a revelation that began to dawn thanks to some Sunday School teachers who appeared far more inclined to drum ‘Jesus Christ’s message’ into our little heads, than practise those virtues themselves.

  22. Robert In New Orleans says:

    What is more important is what this video doesn’t show, the methane out gassing in the ocean. Returning to Stone Age agriculture as the Russian scientist suggests will not help us.

  23. J says:

    Here’s an interesting read from John Nielsen-Gammon on global warming and the Texas drought >>

    His take on climate change and the drought in Texas is a little different. I’m trying to stay balanced on what I hear and read.

  24. J says:

    What conservatives have done is removed personal responsibility from climate change and left it in God’s hands. Prayer is fine if that’s what one believes, but human action is what is necessary. The charade of Rick Perry calling for Texans to “pray for rain” was meant for a target audience who bought it hook,line,and whatever.

  25. FYI – the entry for Tennessee contains some inaccuracies that were corrected at Specifically: “An earlier version of this story contained references to April flooding in Nashville, TN. This flooding occurred in 2010, not 2011. Also, the National Weather Service rated the Apison, TN tornado as an EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, not an EF-5 as previously indicated.”