While the the damage Hurricane Irene left in its wake is still being talled, it is already projected to be one of the top 10 costliest disasters in U.S. history. Estimates put the cost at $7 billion to $10 billion after the storm knocked out power, destroyed crops, and flooded towns throughout the East Coast.
But the cost of the Texas drought, which climate change pushed to extremes, may be greater economic disaster. Earlier this month, Texas Agrilife Extension Service estimated losses to be at $5.2 billion — already greater than the $4.1 billion of losses from the 2006 drought. “This drought is just strangling our agricultural economy,” professor Travis Miller, of Texas A&M University’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. Losses, told TIME Magazine.
The extended heat wave that has exacerbated the drought is expected to break soon, but without rain, farmers will have no relief before planting winter wheat in September or October. Texas produces one-third of winter wheat in the U.S., so analysts expect price increases if there is not enough rain for the wheat crop. Already from the summer, Texas, which produces 55 percent of U.S. cotton, has lost half its cotton crop. And scant summer rain has led to a scarce hay crop, so some ranchers are selling off cattle herds because they can’t afford to continue providing feed and water. The short-term price in beef may drop, but the long-term implications of losing entire herds will push up the price soon enough.
And the outlook for rain could remain bleak for Texas and states across the southern Plains that could use some of the deluge Irene dumped on the northeast:
Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico have been caught in a heat wave that feeds on the drought, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. As sunlight hits the ground, Nielsen-Gammon says, it evaporates any moisture in the soil and raises the temperature of the soil. With no moisture, the ground is a virtual hot plate, adding to the misery. [...]
So far this year, [Texas] has recorded about 7.5 in. of rain, Nielsen-Gammon says. “That’s 40% of our normal rainfall. The previous drought was 69% of normal.” He gives the state a 50% chance of lower-than-normal precipitation this winter. If the La Niña effect — cool water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific waters — kicks in later this year, those odds get tougher and go to 75% or 80% for a dry winter, Nielsen-Gammon says.
As the greenhouse gas-fueled weather, from fiercer droughts to stronger hurricanes, continues to create more extreme weather, the U.S. will continue having to tally the high economic costs from the damage caused by these natural disasters.