The true cost of extreme weather

The true cost of extreme weather
Dale Murden walks through drought-afflicted citrus fields on his farm.Jason Garza as shot for The Texas Tribune

Two trillion, six-hundred and fifteen billion dollars.


It's an amount so large it's almost impossible to comprehend. It represents the estimated tab for 371 weather and climate disasters in the US since 1980 that topped $1 billion in damage. On the list are many of the country's most destructive tropical cyclones, droughts, and severe storms, the most recent being Hurricane Idalia.

They're the events we can remember — and many more we likely can't because so many more disasters have been breaking into the billion-dollar club in recent years. Decade to decade, costly extreme weather events are increasing in both frequency and intensity as greenhouse gases build up in our atmosphere.

Yet as big as the dollar figures can get, they can never convey all that is truly lost in these disasters. Countless costs to people get left out of official tallies, including mental and physical trauma. There are harms in the form of environmental damage and supply-chain disruptions. These become, in essence, hidden costs. And many of us are paying them.

Meet a teacher who nearly died from heatstroke after a hike, a farmer in Texas who watched a hurricane and subsequent deep freeze wipe out much of his citrus crop, and a woman whose nonprofit lost everything to a flood.


The true cost of extreme heat

Lois Nigrin grew up on a farm and loved getting outdoors. So when she and her husband set off on a hike in Arizona as part of an anniversary trip, she didn't anticipate how wrong things could go. Heat was nothing new for Nigrin — and the couple had trained for the hike.

The true cost of extreme weather
Lois Nigrin feels lucky to be alive.Arin Yoon for Insider

Yet the temperatures were so extreme that day in June 2019 that what was meant to be a celebration of decades of partnership ended up leaving Nigrin in a coma with third-degree burns on her backside. Her family rushed to the hospital to be with her in what doctors said would likely be her final hours.

Nigrin, a teacher in Nebraska, survived the nightmare but still has the scars from her burns and skin grafts, which remind her how close she came to dying. Her ordeal points to the rising cost of extreme heat, the leading weather-related killer in the US.

The type of heat that nearly killed Nigrin could add $1 billion every summer to US healthcare costs for things such as emergency-department visits, the Center for American Progress estimates. The problems are also likely to extend beyond the hospital into everyday life. The Atlantic Council predicts that a rising number of sweltering days could zap some $100 billion a year from the nation's labor productivity.

For Nigrin, the full cost of extreme heat is something she's still grappling with.


Read more about her story here.

The true cost of volatile weather

Dale Murden has the unflappable demeanor of a farmer who's been forced to deal with the ups and downs of a tough business. He's relied on that trait over his more than 40 years growing citrus and raising cattle in Harlingen, Texas.

But in recent years, he's witnessed swings that leave him wondering whether times are changing and whether his farm, near the Mexico border, will remain in a subtropical climate.

Murden watched in back-to-back seasons as a hurricane and then a deep freeze ruined huge portions of his grapefruit harvest and trees. Recovery has taken years.

The true cost of extreme weather
Jason Garza as shot for The Texas Tribune

As the weather gets more extreme, farmers are having a harder time knowing what to plan for. And supports such as crop insurance don't always cover all the costs that erratic weather delivers, particularly for fruit and vegetable growers. In Murden's case, some of his trees suffered damage when extreme cold dipped into the southern edge of Texas.


An increase in the intensity of cold snaps is one of the more-peculiar developments of a warmer world: The heat can dislodge the bands of cold air that normally hug the Arctic — sending cold air plunging south. That's what Murden experienced in February 2021 when he lost much of his grapefruit harvest.

Texas leads among states in both cumulative damages due to extreme weather and frequency of these events, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analysis going back to 1980 found.

The Texas citrus industry has experienced the fallout from volatile weather. Over the past two decades, citrus growers in Southeast Texas have produced nearly 274,000 tons of grapefruit and oranges on average each season. That was nearly cut in half during the 2020-21 season, according to data compiled by the Texas Valley Citrus Committee. The following year was even worse, yielding just under 74,000 tons.

Economists at Texas A&M University tallied overall losses at nearly $228 million and more than 1,000 jobs because the citrus harvest relies on seasonal workers who pick fruit.

In states such as Texas, where costly weather is becoming the norm, it's getting harder for some farmers to get by. That's something Murden knows well.


Read more about his experience here.

The true cost of flooding

Barb Grant has built her life's work around helping others.

For someone like Grant, being unable to help people in a crisis is an awful feeling. So when flood waters ripped through the offices of the nonprofit she runs in eastern Iowa, she felt helpless. She had to tell those she would normally assist that there wasn't much her community-aid organization could do for them. It, too, was dealing with ruinous flooding.

The true cost of extreme weather
After a flood, Barb Grant had to rebuild her nonprofit in a new location.Miriam Alarcón Avila for Insider

The organization eventually recovered and was rebuilt on higher ground, yet whenever flooding is predicted, Grant feels on edge.

She's not alone. Many people have experienced flooding — not just those along the coasts or near rivers. Torrential rains and snowmelt mean flooding is an almost daily event in the US. It's so common that flooding is the most frequent — and costliest — type of natural disaster in the country, according to the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts.


Grant, like an increasing number of Americans, knows what often comes after a flood: a long recovery.

Read more about her story here.

The true cost of inaction

There is more to this story than a set of ruinous tragedies. Data suggests costs of extreme weather are trickling through the economy and could soon overwhelm our social safety net if left unchecked, economists told Insider.

Doing nothing is a way to guarantee the tab continues to increase.

It could also mean missing out on a huge opportunity. By taking action to curb emissions and move toward a more resilient economy, it's possible we could create a world where the climate crisis is just another pressure we need to deal with, rather than a string of unmanageable calamitous events.

Read about what could be ahead here.


Reporters: Annie Fu, Morgan McFall-Johnsen, Catherine Boudreau, Jacob Zinkula, Marianne Guenot
Design, development, and graphics: Annie Fu
Editors: Tim Paradis, Matt Turner, Josée Rose
Copy editors: Nick Siwek, Jonann Brady
Design editor: Kazi Awal
Photo editor: Isabel Fernandez-Pujol
Photographers: Rachel Jessen, Miriam Alarcón Avila, Arin Yoon, Jason Garza, Courtesy of Barb Grant, Courtesy of Operation Threshold