The rare combination of destructive wildfires, vicious tornado outbreaks and the fifth most active Atlantic hurricane season on record combined to create one of the most deadly, dangerous and costly years on record- one that tested the wills of even the most experienced and hardened professionals. Here’s a look back at some of the historic natural disasters first responders faced in 2017.
The California Floods: January 7 – February 22, 2017 – Following five consecutive years of drought that included three of the driest on record, the California winter of 2016-17, buoyed by a strong El Nino, flipped the script. It was the wettest on record for Northern California resulting in epic flooding that cost over $1 billion in road damages alone. Over 188,000 residents were evacuated when the Orville Dam Spillway was damaged. The California floods resulted in 5 deaths.
The Southern Tornadoes: January 20-22, 2017 – As of Oct. 8, 2017, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center reported that 1,391 tornadoes had ripped through the U.S. — 332 more than all of 2016. One 3-day outbreak of 79 tornadoes that spun across the Gulf states and South Carolina was the third-highest number of tornadoes for a single wintertime outbreak. The storms accounted for $1.1 billion in damages and 24 deaths.
The Central / Southeast Tornadoes: February 28 – March 1, 2017 – If the Southern tornadoes didn’t cause enough destruction, just five weeks later, another violent 2-day outburst of 70 tornadoes tore a path across the central and southern U.S. causing over $1.8 billion in damages and 6 deaths.
The Midwest Tornadoes: March 6 – 8, 2017 – Despite two historic rounds of severe tornadic outbreaks, the winter/spring season still wasn’t finished. Over three days during the first week of March, yet another outbreak of violent tornadoes thrashed eleven midwest states causing over $2.1 billion dollars in damages and 2 deaths.
The Missouri / Arkansas Floods: April 25 – May 7, 2017 – The devastating floods that washed over Arkansas, southern Missouri and parts of Illinois and Indiana were caused by what meteorologists called a 1-in-a-1000-year event. Some areas were drenched with over a foot of rain in just a few hours on April 29th. Levees were breached and towns were flooded causing over $1.7 billion in damages to homes, businesses, infrastructure, and agriculture. The floods caused 20 deaths.
The Washington State Wildfires: May – September 2017 – Fueled by record heat, arid conditions that included over 52 straight days without rain in Seattle, and a few untimely lightning strikes, the Washington state wildfires ignited in May and would continue to burn well into mid-September, when the first significant rainfall was recorded. There were over 10 separate fire events highlighted by the Jolly Mountain Fire and “Smokezilla” (when smoke from British Columbia affected Seattle) in August. On September 2, Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency across all of Washington and National Guard soldiers and airmen were called in to join the fight. Damages are still being assessed.
The Montana Wildfires: June – September 2017 – Like Washington State, Oregon, and California, Montana was vulnerable to wildfires in 2017 due to extreme drought. The months of June and August were the hottest on record and fire season began a month earlier than usual. By September 7, about 21 large active fires were burning, having consumed 438,000 acres. By September 20, over 48 fires had scorched 1,295,959 acres. Two fires alone claimed over 100,000 acres each, including the Lodgepole Complex Fire (270,723 acres) and the Rice Ridge Fire in Lolo National Forest (160,183 acres). Sadly, two firefighters were killed by burning snags (falling tree limbs) within two weeks of one another.
The Oregon Wildfires: June – September 2017 – Like much of the west, Oregon also suffered a historic wildfire season. Some of the state’s most beloved natural attractions were torched, including the Columbia River Gorge (which shut down I-84 for days), Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters. As was the case in Washington, National Guardsmen were called in to assist. During the first week of August, public and private wildland firefighters battled 20 large uncontained fires that represented more than a third of all wildfires burning in the nation at the time. By the third week of September (dubbed “Smoketember”), over 1,060 square miles had burned.
Hurricane Harvey: August 17 – September 3, 2017 – A slow-moving Cat 4 hurricane that made landfall near Rockport, Texas, Harvey was the first major cyclone to make landfall in the United States in 12 years. The storm devastated Houston and the surrounding areas with historic floodwaters, dumping more than 30 inches of rain on 6.9 million people in four days. Another 1.25 million people would experience 45 inches in a single week and 11,000, over 50 inches. The result: the costliest hurricane on record (breaking Katrina’s record), with nearly $200 billion in damage. The wettest storm on record, Harvey was also credited with 63 direct and 28 indirect deaths.
Hurricane Irma: August 30 – September 16, 2017 – Hurricane Irma was one of the most powerful storms on record, maintaining a wind speed of 185 mph for 37 hours. No other storm in the satellite era has ever done the same. It remained a Cat 5 storm longer than any other Atlantic hurricane other than Ivan in 2004. The storm devastated the Virgin Islands before eventually making landfall in the Florida Keys where 25% of all buildings were destroyed and 65% heavily damaged. Wind and storm surge would significantly affect parts of Florida and South Carolina, including near-record surges in Jacksonville and Charleston. The storm’s trail of death and destruction resulted in 134 total fatalities and $64.6 billion in damage.
Hurricane Maria: September 16 – October 3, 2017 – Just two weeks after Irma, travesty struck again in the form of Hurricane Maria. The record third Cat 4+ storm to hit the U.S. in a single season made landfall in southeastern Puerto Rico after trouncing St. Croix and Dominica. Maria’s powerful winds devastated Puerto Rico’s already-fragile, communication, transportation, and energy infrastructure and sent the island into a humanitarian crisis with widespread flooding and mudslides. Maria is estimated to have caused a total of 133 deaths and $103.45 billion in damages.
The (Northern) California Wildfires: October 8 – October 31, 2017 – The California Wildfires were a series of 8,691 fires that burned over 1,090,098 acres across California. Much of the destruction took place in Northern California, where 21 major fires burned over 245,000 acres starting in early October. High winds and severe fire conditions helped fuel the rapid spread of the fires, despite historic flooding earlier in the year. The Tubbs Fire, which burned over 36,807 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Lake Counties incinerated over 5,300 structures and killed 24, becoming the most destructive fire in California’s history. The Northern California wildfires destroyed over 8,900 buildings in total, causing an estimated $3.3 billion in damage. Even as this article was headed to print, several devastating new wildfires were erupting in Ventura County and parts of southern California.
Primary Sources: NOAA / National Centers for Environmental Information / Storm Prediction Center / State Governments