WEATHER

FEMA expected to run out of disaster relief funds before summer’s end

Jun 10, 2024, 11:50 AM | Updated: 12:00 pm

The Crowder family surveys their home destroyed by a tornado on May 7 in Barnsdall, northeast Oklah...

The Crowder family surveys their home destroyed by a tornado on May 7 in Barnsdall, northeast Oklahoma. (Brandon Bell, Getty Images)

(Brandon Bell, Getty Images)

(CNN)The United States has been rocked by an extraordinary number of tornadoes and devastating storms this year that have already left a staggering price tag.

Now heading into what forecasters say will be an extreme summer – from punishing heat waves to severe weather and hurricanes – the nation’s disaster relief agency is expected to run out of money before it’s even over.

The U.S. has been thrashed with 11 extreme weather disasters with costs exceeding $1 billion so far this year, with a total price tag of $25.1 billion, according to an updated tally from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s tied for the second-most such disasters on record and doesn’t even include the extreme weather in the second half of May, said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist with NOAA.

That is worrying news for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose major disaster relief fund could slip into the red by the end of summer – a more than $1.3 billion shortfall in August, according to a May report.

Florida’s two Republican senators recently wrote a letter to FEMA asking the agency how much more money it would need to respond to hurricane season.

In a statement to CNN, a FEMA spokesperson didn’t address exactly how much funding it would need to get through hurricane season, but said the agency is continuing to work with Congress “to ensure sufficient funding is available.”

“Without additional funding, FEMA will take steps prior to funding exhaustion to ensure resources are available to support ongoing lifesaving and life-sustaining activities,” the spokesperson said. In the event of a major catastrophe like a hurricane, the agency would have a funding reserve set aside for initial response and recovery operations.

FEMA’s tenuous balance sheet reflects how many destructive storms have already lashed the U.S.

This spring produced the second-most tornadoes to-date since records began in 1950, according to the Storm Prediction Center. Tornado activity skyrocketed from late April through May, with more than 780 confirmed tornadoes cutting across the central and eastern U.S. during April and May, the SPC said.

Some storms have been deadly. An EF4 that ripped through Greenfield, Iowa, killed five. Another tornado in Cooke County, Texas, later in the month killed seven people.

Severe thunderstorms have been extremely destructive, with hail wreaking havoc across the central U.S. Severe thunderstorms blasted multiple cities with hurricane-force wind gusts in May. A derecho with 100 mph wind turned debris into projectiles and shattered glass windows in downtown Houston skyscrapers. Nearly a million homes and businesses were left without power, many for days, after violent winds mangled massive electrical transmission towers.

And scientists are warning this summer could continue the destruction as the dramatic warming of the planet and oceans from burning fossil fuels set the stage for a supercharged hurricane season and dangerous heat.

Crews work to clean up debris in Houston after a wall came down in the aftermath of a severe storm on May 17. (Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Getty Images)

The climate crisis’ favorite season

Summer historically is the season with the most billion-dollar disasters because it is “a transition period of many extremes historically, as the severe storm season continues while the prospect of hurricane season approaches,” Smith said.

A chorus of expert voices are calling for an above-average Atlantic hurricane season as anxiety-inducing conditions in the atmosphere and oceans align. Record-breaking ocean heat is expected to feed hurricanes, helping them form, strengthen and survive. El Niño is predicted to give way to La Niña and create more favorable atmospheric conditions for storms to thrive.

Just about every kind of extreme weather is possible during summer, including more severe thunderstorms. June is the third-most active month for tornadoes in the U.S., according to the SPC. It’s also the most-active month for destructive and costly severe hail, a 2012 study found.

While the connection between hurricanes and climate change is strong, scientists are less sure whether there’s a link to stronger or more frequent tornadoes but are sure it is making heat waves more intense and frequent.

Above-average temperatures are expected over nearly every square mile of the Lower 48 this summer, and it began early: It’s already been the hottest start to June on record in Las Vegas, as the West gets hit with a series of early-season heat waves.

Prolonged, intense heat dries out soil and can lead to drought and billions of dollars in costs due to crop losses. Last year, a series of heat domes seared the South and produced the worst drought on record for Louisiana and one of the state’s worst fire seasons on record.

Heat can dry out grass and create a tinderbox for fast-moving wildfires, particularly in the central and western U.S.

California’s fire season could get a late start because of another exceptional wet season, according to Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But as heat takes its toll, wildfire activity could “really amp up” in California in late summer as the bounty of grass and brush from the wet season dries out, Swain said. He also highlighted the Great Basin in Nevada and Utah as a spot that normally doesn’t see wildfire but could, due to a “huge proliferation of grass.”

According to Swain, wildfire activity could really kick off in late summer, and if that holds up, emergency response could stretch well into the fall. It’s shaping up to be another year of year-round extreme weather.

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FEMA expected to run out of disaster relief funds before summer’s end