The Federal Government Is Still Undercounting Extreme Weather And Climate Deaths

NOAA announced that at least 688 people died from extreme weather in 2021, but BuzzFeed News has shown that the true toll is much higher.

Brett Carlsen / Getty Images

People at cleanup efforts after buildings were destroyed by flooding in Waverly, Tennessee, in August 2021.

At least 688 people died in major weather and climate disasters in the continental US last year, making it the deadliest year for such events since 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Monday morning. But the true toll from last year’s devastating extreme weather is actually much higher.

NOAA’s count only encompasses events that caused more than a billion dollars in damage to buildings, other infrastructure, and assets, including crops, which means that some deadly events in 2021 are missing. Notably, it excludes the flash flooding that killed around 20 people in central Tennessee in August.

But more importantly, excess deaths analyses run by BuzzFeed News have shown that NOAA’s numbers for fatalities in the two deadliest extreme weather events of 2021 reflect only a fraction of the death toll.

NOAA counted 229 deaths from the extreme heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest in late June, and 226 from the blast of Arctic air that enveloped much of the nation in mid-February — at least 210 of those in Texas, where the winter storm caused widespread power outages. That left millions of people in the freezing cold, many of them for several days. (Texas has since increased its count of the deaths in the disaster to 246, also a major undercount.)

Our analyses of spikes in total deaths — revealed in state records compiled by the CDC — show that around 670 people were likely killed by excessive heat in Washington and Oregon in a single week at the height of the heat wave, while more than 750 people likely perished in Texas as a result of the winter storm and power outages. Many of these deaths were missed in the official counts because they were attributed on death certificates to underlying health conditions, especially cardiovascular disease, that can be exacerbated by extremes of hot and cold.

After a query from BuzzFeed News on Monday, NOAA amended the descriptions for these two events in its billion dollar disasters database to note that each may have caused “hundreds of additional deaths” detected by excess mortality analysis.

In reality, as BuzzFeed News reported last month, problems with cause-of-death reporting and the difficulty accounting for the lethal indirect effects of severe weather mean that no official sources are capturing the full death toll caused by weather extremes. It’s a big data gap that is hampering the nation’s ability to mitigate the effects of climate change.

NOAA’s death count was part of its roundup of climate and weather extremes in 2021. Beyond being deadly, last year’s disasters were also very expensive, the agency determined. The US was hit by 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, the most on record apart from 2020, when there were 22.

The agency’s breakdown of the 2021 billion-dollar disasters, which cost a total of $145 billion, included Texas’s winter storm, four tropical cyclones, including Hurricane Ida, two floods, three tornado outbreaks, including those in December that devastated Kentucky, one combined drought and heat wave, and eight additional severe weather events. Additionally, a collection of wildfires in Western states were all counted as a single event.

Moreover, 2021 continued to follow a streak of blazing hot years, with the average temperature in the contiguous US measuring 54.5 degrees Fahrenheit, 2.5 degrees above that of the 20th century. That means that last year was the nation’s fourth warmest on record, according to NOAA. The country’s six warmest years have all occurred in the past decade: 2012 was the hottest, followed by 2016, 2017, 2021, 2015, and 2020.

UPDATE

This post was updated to note that NOAA amended the event descriptions in its billion dollar disasters database for the Texas winter storm and the Pacific Northwest heat wave to acknowledge that each may have caused “hundreds of additional deaths,” after a query from BuzzFeed News.


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