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Tennessee has already beaten its annual record for billion-dollar disasters. Did you notice?

Powerful winds downed trees and power poles across Tennessee on Friday, March 3, 2023.
Paige Pfleger
Powerful winds downed trees and power poles across Tennessee on Friday, March 3, 2023.

The United States has been hit by a record 23 billion-dollar disasters this year. In August alone, fires in Hawaii killed at least 115 people, the northwestern coast of Florida experienced its first category 3 hurricane in over a century, and ping-pong-sized hail fell in Minnesota.

Tennessee was impacted by 10 of these disasters.

While the state has seen deadly floods, ice storms and lingering droughts in recent years, wind was the source of destruction for every disaster in 2023, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which estimates that these thunderstorms or tornadoes caused between $2 and $5 billion in damages across the state.

The first multi-state, billion-dollar storm was in March. Fast winds and tornadoes caused damage to “homes, vehicles, businesses, government buildings and infrastructure,” NOAA wrote, while cutting power to more than 350,000 Tennessee homes. In Nashville, this windstorm knocked out at least 600 trees.

At the end of March, more than a dozen states were impacted by at least 145 tornadoes that killed 27 people — and 10 of those deaths happened in West Tennessee. (There have been 32 tornadoes in Tennessee so far this year.)

Tennessee was hit by 10 multi-state, billion-dollar disasters in the first eight months of 2023.
Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Tennessee was hit by 10 multi-state, billion-dollar disasters in the first eight months of 2023.

Earlier this month, President Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Tennessee because of windstorms in late July. Federal funding is available for several counties, Fayette, Henry, Shelby and Tipton, in West Tennessee. The disaster declaration also opened up funding for hazard mitigation measures statewide.

Why are windstorms so expensive?

Thunderstorm winds account for half of all severe damage reports from storms in the continental U.S. These winds, also called “straight-line” winds to differentiate them from tornadoes, are created by an outflow generated by a thunderstorm downdraft.

Damaging winds are technically considered those at least 50 mph. While tornadoes are more likely to crush buildings, winds from thunderstorms can tally up more expenses. For reference, the lowest-level tornado has winds at least 65 mph, but straight-line winds can stretch across paths extended for hundreds of miles.

“Straight-line winds can be as damaging as low-end tornadoes,” Sam Herron, a meteorologist with NWS Nashville told WPLN earlier this year. “It’s more rare to have repeated strong winds.”

Since 1980, Tennessee has been impacted by 107 billion-dollar disasters. Severe storms, defined as thunderstorm winds, tornadoes or hail, account for the majority, followed by drought, winter storms and tropical cyclones.

Disaster frequency differs each year. In 2022, Tennessee was impacted by four billion-dollar disasters, including drought, a winter storm and two high-wind, tornado events. In 2021, Tennessee was affected by seven storm events, including another winter storm and inland impacts from tropical cyclones. In 2010, there was only one billion-dollar disaster — the May 2010 flood.

Nationally, the frequency of billion-dollar disasters is trending upwards with climate change. Between 2016 and 2020, there was an average of 18 days between disasters, compared to 82 days in the 1980s.

Caroline Eggers covers environmental issues with a focus on equity for WPLN News through Report for America, a national service program that supports journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Before joining the station, she spent several years covering water quality issues, biodiversity, climate change and Mammoth Cave National Park for newsrooms in the South. Her reporting on homelessness and a runoff-related “fish kill” for the Bowling Green Daily News earned her 2020 Kentucky Press Association awards in the general news and extended coverage categories, respectively. Beyond deadlines, she is frequently dancing, playing piano and photographing wildlife and her poodle, Princess. She graduated from Emory University with majors in journalism and creative writing.
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