Drought special part 5. Drought seems inconsequential right now


In the United States, drought cost $250 billion in damages and killed nearly 3000 people between 1980 and 2020, making it the costliest natural disaster and the second most deadly one.

This was about as far as I made it into the fifth article of the recent Science drought series. When I read these numbers, two thoughts sprang to mind.

1. Is drought really the second most deadly natural disaster in the United States?

Tropical cyclones were clearly the most deadly (the death toll of Maria alone was close to 3,000). But I could not find any data to support the claim that droughts killed 3,000 Americans in the last 40 years. This article suggests drought and heat killed about 4,000 Americans between 1970 and 2010. But heat isn’t the same as drought. You can have a very hot (even dry) summer that kills people but isn’t necessarily associated with drought.

I could not find where the 3,000 estimate actually originates from. The citation provided is Smith et al. (2015). No mention of deaths in that paper.

2. How do these numbers compare with COVID-19?

Let’s take these numbers at face value. So over the last four decades drought killed 3,000 Americans and caused $250 billion in damages.

The Coronavirus killed 2,492 Americans.

That’s 2,492 Americans killed today.

Today alone.

(source: FT)

As for damages? Multiply the total damages from four decades of drought by ten. That’s the cost of the US Government stimulus package. (Ok, it’s not an apples to apples comparison, but you get the point).

From the abstract of the paper in Science:

Droughts of the future are likely to be more frequent, severe, and longer lasting than they have been in recent decades.

Maybe true. But it all seems a little inconsequential right now.