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Looking Back at the 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season

2021 marks the seventh consecutive year in which ten or more weather and climate disasters caused over $1 billion in damages in the United States, with an unprecedented 18 separate billion-dollar disasters in the first nine months of the year. Tropical cyclones made up 64% of the total costs from weather and climate disasters this year, as of October. After another particularly busy start to the season, the Atlantic Coast experienced an unusual lack of hurricanes in November.

A tropical cyclone is a system of clouds and thunderstorms that originates over tropical waters, often with very intense wind force. There are three types of tropical cyclones:

  • Tropical Depression: maximum sustained winds of 38 mph or less
  • Tropical Storm: maximum sustained winds of 39-73 mph; once a tropical cyclone reaches wind speeds of 39 mph it becomes a named storm
  • Hurricane: maximum sustained winds of 74 mph or greater; major hurricanes have speeds of 111 mph or higher
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2021 Major Tropical Cyclones: Points of Landfall in the US

Source: Tropical Atlantic 

2021 was the third most active year of tropical storms and hurricanes on record, and the sixth consecutive season with above average tropical cyclone activity.

While the 2021 season had fewer billion-dollar disasters than 2020, 2021 was more costly and more deadly because of Hurricane Ida, a devastating storm that killed nearly 100 people and has so far led to about $65 billion in damages, with some analysts estimating a final total cost of $95 billion. Sixteen years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana with sustained winds of 150 mph, having increased by 65 mph in the 24-hour period prior to landfall. Ida left more than 1 million Louisiana residents without power, including the entire city of New Orleans. Twenty-six people died in Louisiana alone, many due to carbon monoxide poisoning or improper evacuation from nursing homes.

Summary and Estimated Impacts of Billion-Dollar Tropical Cyclones in the U.S., 2021

Federal Response to Ida

The federal response to Hurricane Ida provides an example of the roles different agencies play and the comprehensive measures demanded for hurricane response. President Biden approved major disaster declarations for Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, making federal aid available for those states.

As the primary agency tasked with early disaster response, FEMA approved over $660 million in assistance for families in the first month after the disaster. This included rental assistance, assistance to repair damaged dwellings, and other needs such as medical and childcare costs. FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) paid nearly $77 million to homeowners with damaged homes. FEMA also provided temporary housing to nearly 20,000 households in hotels and motels, and provided meals, water, tarps, and energy generators.

Other agencies also played a crucial role in early response efforts. In the first month after the disaster:

  • The Small Business Administration provided over $200 million in low-interest disaster loans to businesses
  • HUD provided foreclosure relief and made new mortgage insurance available
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed more than 9,000 blue roofs so families could stay in their damaged homes while under repair, and brought in planning and response teams for debris removal
  • HHS set up a medical station and an evacuation site at the airport in New Orleans
  • The Coast Guard and Department and Defense initiated search and rescue efforts
  • The Federal Communications Commission worked to restore critical communications, deploying staff to support spectrum management, providing temporary cell and radio infrastructure, and working with cellular providers to provide emergency service

HUD oversees the federal government’s primary long-term disaster recovery program, the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program. CDBG-DR helps address the unmet needs of communities affected by disaster after the initial response led by FEMA. In the past, funds have been used to address housing needs, such as homeowner compensation, housing repair and construction, and property acquisition, as well as other community and infrastructure needs. In late September, Congress passed and President Biden signed legislation providing an emergency supplemental appropriation to HUD of $5 billion for disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021. In November, HUD announced about $2 billion would be allocated for 2020 disasters, including hurricanes affecting Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. HUD also announced that it intends to allocate another portion of those dollars for long-term recovery from Hurricane Ida in the coming months.

Annual Frequency and Cost* of Billion-Dollar Tropical Cyclones

Unsurprisingly, hurricane damage over the past 20 years has been concentrated in states closer to the tropical Atlantic, such as Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico. However, the repercussions of an Atlantic Hurricane can ripple all across the Atlantic coast, as Hurricane Ida made clear when it led to 43 fatalities across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut and left more than 150,000 homes in those states without power.

Total Cost* of Billion-Dollar Tropical Cyclones by State or Territory, 1980-2021

Hurricanes, like all climate and weather disasters, do not discriminate between red and blue states. Empowering communities to effectively prepare for and respond to increasingly powerful hurricanes, reducing loss of life and economic consequences, should be a bipartisan priority. In 2020, BPC launched a Disaster Response Reform Task Force made up of emergency management experts to investigate the federal response to disasters such as hurricanes, identifying the barriers to efficient, impactful, and equitable aid to communities in crisis and developing actionable policy recommendations.

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