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What is the maintenance cost of natural disasters and how can better maintenance ease their economic impacts?

Hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires – oh my! No matter where you live, natural disasters are getting more frequent and more expensive. In 2018, natural disasters cost the U.S. Government nearly $100 billion. The 2017 natural disaster profile was even more destructive – costing upwards of $300 billion. Though these numbers fluctuate year over year, the general trend of U.S. government spending on natural disasters is increasing dramatically. 

economic impacts of natural disasters, maintenance costs of natural disasters, upkeep

Damage from natural disasters can be felt at both the environmental and individual level. However, long-term infrastructure and services damages that result from natural disasters can spiral into worse problems if they are not cared for quickly. Maintenance teams must work quickly to reopen infrastructure that may have been damaged in a weather event, so that normal activities can resume.  

Let’s take a deeper look at natural disasters, their costs, and how maintenance will help ease the burden of future events.

What is a natural disaster?

Natural disasters are predominantly extreme weather events – such as hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, floods, heatwaves, and droughts. Meteorologists can often foresee extreme weather events, but predicting the extent of the damage from an extreme weather event can be difficult. Hurricane Harvey is a recent example of a costly natural disaster. Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas and Louisiana in 2017. The damages from this single hurricane are estimated at over $125 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 ($161 billion).  

economic impacts of natural disasters, maintenance costs of natural disasters, upkeep

Other, non-weather events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and wildfires also constitute natural disasters. These events are seemingly random and can wreak absolute havoc in minutes. Take, for example, the Camp Fire in California last year. The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, and the vast majority of the damage was done within the first four hours that it burned. The total cost of damages from that fire alone was $16.5 billion

economic impacts of natural disasters, maintenance costs of natural disasters, upkeep

A breakdown of natural disaster costs

Short-term

In the short-term, natural disasters cost insurance companies and individuals thousands, if not millions, of dollars. 

Natural disasters also interrupt our normal flow of goods and services. They can shut down roads, knock out power, and otherwise restrict transportation. This makes the prices of consumables, such as food, water, and gas, increase sharply as their scarcity increases during a natural disaster event.

Long-term

In the long-term, massive natural disasters can drastically slow economic growth. Infrastructure damage further prevents the movement of goods and services. Bridges, roads, and power lines are particularly subject to long-term damages.

For individuals who have lost their homes, it is difficult to rebuild. Homeowners who have damages exceeding insurance coverages go bankrupt as they cannot afford to move elsewhere. Studies have also found that between 30% and 60% of people who experience natural disasters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD, as well as other health consequences of natural disasters, slows individuals’ productivity as they recover. This further translates to a decrease in the overall productivity of the economy, creating economic impacts that can last for decades to come.

Looking Forward

Climate Change

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found that over the last two decades, the number of recorded natural disasters has doubled from around 200 events per year to over 400 recorded natural disasters every year. Now, not all of these natural disasters are billion-dollar events, but they do all have some damaging effects.

In the face of climate change, which has worsened drastically over the last two decades, natural disasters have become not only more frequent but also more severe. An article in The Washington Post explains:

As global temperatures rise, the federal government has faced far more billion-dollar disasters – those causing at least $1 billion in damages. From 1980 through 2018, the U.S. government faced, on average, only six such in a given year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)…But of the most recent five years on record – from 2014 to 2018 – the United States has seen an average of 13 billion-dollar disasters every year.

A surge in disaster spending directly reflects the effects of climate change. Additionally, a growing population means that people are spreading further and denser into disaster-prone regions, bringing about more costly damages.

economic impacts of natural disasters, maintenance costs of natural disasters, upkeep

Better Maintenance

Broadly, maintenance activities often begin in the middle of a natural disaster. For example, if a wildfire breaks out in a residential area, an evacuation might be ordered. Of course, the local police and firefighting units would dispatch to enforce this evacuation; but, even before these first-responders can get out to resident’s homes, the maintenance teams must first go. They precede the police, the firefighters, and the medics to make sure that the roads are clear and safe for movement. They remove down trees or powerlines, and ensure that the fire will not endanger cars on the road. These maintenance teams are the unsung heroes of natural disaster recovery.

Furthermore, maintenance and repair are also crucial activities after a natural disaster in order to restore a physical space to what its was before. This encompasses a wide range of work – from common tasks, such as clearing roads and repairing power lines after a hurricane, to complex projects, such as checking water supplies for contamination following an earthquake. 

Typically, though, maintenance is an afterthought, only perceived as fixing things after something is broken or damaged. However, this must change. How can we shift to thinking of maintenance as a proactive mitigation strategy and start taking action today to lessen the damages of tomorrow? 

Maintenance will be more important than ever as natural disasters show no sign of ceasing. The more we can do to strengthen our infrastructure, our buildings, and our environment before a natural disaster event occurs, the better.