It’s been quite a year for natural and man-made disasters in this country: the costliest wildfire season in US history, three Category 4 hurricanes, and the worst mass shooting in US history to name a few. At least 16 natural disasters made the billion-dollar-damage list, tying the record set in 2011.
This month alone, more than 200,000 Southern California residents fled their homes in advance of ferocious wildfires, some threatening portions of the City of Los Angeles and San Diego. In October, forty-four people died and thousands more lost their homes in the Northern California fires. Some 1.2 million acres in California will have burned by year’s end, possibly more before the final bell sounds, which makes it the second worst wildfire year in the state’s history, approaching the 1.4 million acres burned in 2008.
Communities along the Gulf Coast and across Puerto Rico are still reeling from the parade of monster hurricanes this year. 2017 saw the most major Atlantic hurricanes since 2005, with three Category 4 storms – Irma, Harvey, and Maria – making landfall. Current damage estimates sit at $370 billion (more than twice the 2005 total), but are expected to rise.
Sadly, 2017 also set a record for the deadliest mass shooting in US history, the Las Vegas concert massacre in October where 58 people were killed. The Sutherland Springs church shooting in November, where 26 people were gunned down, became the 5th most deadly US shooting spree.
What to make of such a record-breaking year?
Many are quick to point to climate change as a common thread fueling more extreme weather events – flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts. 2016 was the hottest year since accurate record-keeping began. A year before, 2015 set the record. So did 2014. The planet is warming, weather patterns are changing, and more extreme weather events lie ahead. Not every weather-related disaster should be ascribed to climate change — even reputable climate scientists who believe human-made warming is changing weather patters are quick to point out that climate trends, their causes and effects, are long-term processes, and no one storm (or one storm year) can validate a global trend spanning many decades. Next year could be a relatively quiet. But the long-term trend appears clear.
With mass shootings, causation is a bit easier to determine. Mass shootings are clearly on the rise. FBI statistics show a 3-fold increase in active shooter events between 2000 and 2013, and that was before the Orlando and Las Vegas massacres set new records. Criminologists and law enforcement officials point to a clear copycat effect, with perpetrators studying the tactics and methods of previous mass shooters. Major killing events can create a template or a model for those that follow. What will eventually divert this steady escalation isn’t clear.
The take-away from our record year? Be prepared. Most of us think disasters are something that happen to other people. Residents on the East Coast didn’t have to worry about earthquakes – until they had one in 2011. Some residents of California probably didn’t think wildfires could wipe out towns and urban neighborhoods. Tornados, floods, tanker truck spills, hail storms, active shooters – the fact is, things happen. We owe it to our families and communities to be ready.