2007: record year for disasters

Disasters hit the U.S. from coast to coast; need for volunteers to aid in recovery continues.

December 31, 2007

"All the facts indicate that losses caused by weather-related natural catastrophes will continue to rise...We should not be misled by the absence of megacatastrophes in 2007."

—Torsten Jeworrek

Tornadoes, floods, freak winter ice storms, wildfires, and public violence throughout the U.S. all kept disaster responders busy in 2007. And with recovery still ongoing in many areas, opportunities abound for volunteers to sign on to help.

"We can always use volunteers," said a spokesman with Appalachia Habitat for Humanity, echoing a familiar refrain among community and faith-based disaster response organizations.

While many disasters have faded from the headlines, the need for volunteers continues, according to responding organizations. Volunteers continue to be needed along the Gulf Coast to help in the ongoing recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as in response to catastrophes from New York to California (a list of volunteer opportunities can be found at www.disastervolunteers.org).

Few U.S. disasters captured and riveted the nation's attention in 2007, unlike in 2005 when Katrina and Rita decimated the Gulf Coast. Worldwide it was a record year with at least 950 major disasters recorded.

In fact, the U.S. got off relatively easily during the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season, with only one storm, Hurricane Humberto, making landfall in Texas in September. The Category 1 hurricane formed from a tropical depression within 18 hours.

Other countries, including Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua, didn't fare as well during hurricane season. Mexico and Jamaica were battered by Hurricane Dean; Nicaragua and Honduras were pounded by Hurricane Felix. Both Felix and Dean were top-level Category 5 hurricanes; it was the first time that two Category 5 storms made landfall in the same season.

Despite the lack of hurricane activity in the U.S., there were still numerous disasters from coast to coast, ranging from widespread drought in the Southeast to devastating wildfires in Southern California. The drought was among Time magazine's top 10 natural disaster stories for 2007.

Near the end of 2007, there were 63 major federal disaster declarations issued nationwide, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That number could change as some requests were still coming in such as for December ice storm damage in the Midwest and some were pending.

The number of declarations for 2007 was up from 52 one year earlier and from 48 in 2005, FEMA said.

A total of 32 states, stretching from Maine to California, received major federal disaster declarations, freeing up federal assistance for recovery efforts. Some states, hit multiple times by various catastrophes, received more than one disaster declaration during the year.

Among disasters which occurred in the U.S. in 2007:

- Wildfires: Nearly two dozen wildfires raged across Southern California in October, burning more than 500,000 acres from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border, destroying nearly 2,000 homes and leaving 12 people dead. Insured losses were put at $1.9 billion. Numerous organizations, including those under the umbrella of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster in San Diego were aiding in the recovery.

The Southern California wildfires, fueled by fierce Santa Ana winds, came about four months after the Angora wildfire destroyed more than 250 homes in the Lake Tahoe area.

- Tornadoes: A powerful EF-5 tornado leveled the small town of Greensburg, Kan., on May 4. The twister left a path of destruction 22 miles long, destroying about 90 percent of the rural community. The storm killed 10 people in Greensburg and two others outside the town. Rebuilding is under way and is being spearheaded by the South Central Kansas Tornado Recovery Organization.

Other tornadoes during the year caused extensive damage throughout the U.S. Among them: an EF-4 twister Aug. 26 which damaged about 90 percent of the homes of Northwood, N.D., a swarm of tornadoes on March 1 that ripped through the Southeast, causing widespread damage in both Americus, Ga., and in Enterprise, Ala., where nine people were killed including eight students at the local high school, and an Oct. 20 twister that tore through the Indiana town of Nappanee, damaging or destroying about 250 homes and businesses.

Another twister, this one in the Missouri town of Caruthersville on April 2, destroyed about half of the community. Two months earlier, on Feb. 2, twisters ravaged parts of Lake, Volusia, Sumter and Seminole counties in Florida, leaving 20 people dead and destroying nearly 1,000 homes.

There was also an extraordinary tornado in August that hit, of all places, Brooklyn, N.Y. The EF-2 twister, with winds of 110 mph to 135 mph, affected about 200 families.

Floods: Back-to-back storms in early December in the Pacific Northwest caused massive flooding in coastal Washington and Oregon. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed and the storm was blamed for at least seven deaths in the two states. Damages could run into the billions of dollars, according to Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.

Flooding earlier in the year affected much of the central U.S., including Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and South Dakota. In some cases, homes were so badly damaged that they had to be torn down. Recovery efforts are taking places in many of the affected areas.

- Bridge collapse: A bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed during the evening rush hour Aug. 1, plunging vehicles and motorists into the water. Thirteen people were killed and about 100 others were injured.

- Public violence: Thirty-two people at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., were shot and killed in an April 16 rampage by a 23-year-old student. The gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, shot and killed himself. It was believed to be the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

- Mine cave-in: A mine collapse Aug. 6 at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Utah trapped six miners. Three rescuers died 10 days later in another mine collapse in an unsuccessful efforts to reach the trapped men. The bodies of the six miners are entombed in the mine, which has since been closed; the cause of the collapse remains a matter of debate. Investigations are ongoing into the disaster.

As devastating as the events were in America, they paled in comparison to disasters which struck elsewhere in the world during the year.

Top among them was Cyclone Sidr which hit Bangladesh in November, killing at least 3,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Flooding from July to September across Southeast Asia, described as the worst in decades, left more than 3,200 people dead and displaced at least 25 million.

A 7.7-magnitude earthquake in Peru in August killed more than 500 people, injured 1,000 and left some 175,000 homeless.

Worldwide, economic losses from natural disasters during the year were at least $75 billion, according to reinsurer Munich Re. That figure was up 50 percent over the previous year but fell far below the $220 billion reported in 2005, a figure driven up by Hurricane Katrina.

The German-based company said 950 natural disasters were recorded worldwide in 2007 - the most since 1974 when it began keeping records - and that the number was expected to increase. There were 850 natural disasters in 2006, Munich Re said.

"All the facts indicate that losses caused by weather-related natural catastrophes will continue to rise," board member Torsten Jeworrek said in a statement. "The trend in respect of weather extremes shows that climate change is already taking effect and that more such extremes are to be expected in the future. We should not be misled by the absence of megacatastrophes in 2007."

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