Quick Take:

If anyone knows what goes into calculating the cost of natural disasters, it’s Adam Smith, an applied climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has tracked more than 300 different billion-dollar storms dating back to 1980.

The frequency of natural disasters causing more than $1 billion in damages is steadily on the rise in California and across the country. The series of atmospheric rivers that marched through the Central Coast in January will likely be the first natural disaster to cross the billion-dollar threshold in 2023, according to one federal scientist who tracks these über-destructive storms.

Adam Smith, an applied climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has analyzed 341 billion-dollar natural disasters endured by the United States since 1980 — 45 of which have affected California. He says the sheer breadth and duration of the atmospheric river parade gives him confidence that damages will exceed $1 billion.

“The scale, intensity and duration of the impacts produced from the atmospheric rivers in relation to past events makes this likely to be a billion-dollar disaster,” Smith told Lookout via email, pointing out that the storms touched everything from homes and businesses to roads, bridges, docks and piers. “Flooding and coastal impacts will likely be quite expensive to repair.”

When tallying the damage, Smith’s team at NOAA analyzes “more than one dozen” public- and private-sector data sources to capture a rough estimate of the cost. The data covers material damage to homes, businesses and public infrastructure, as well as losses attributed to businesses closing, people missing work and the cost associated with losing one’s home.

Smith emphasizes that the true cost of a storm might never be fully understood. The data he examines excludes metrics of “environmental degradation” as well as the costs associated with mental or physical health care, supply-chain interruptions and other business losses. He said his estimates “should be considered conservative.”

Smith does not yet have any projections for how costly the damage was to Santa Cruz County from the storms. The latest local estimates eclipse $75 million in damage to public infrastructure for the county and its four cities — Santa Cruz, Capitola, Scotts Valley and Watsonville — but officials expect that number to soar above $100 million as the picture of the disaster becomes clearer.

Of note, Smith’s past analyses found that Santa Cruz County has a below-average flood risk for California, but higher than the U.S. average. The same goes for drought risk; the risk of severely damaging storms — such as rain, hail, tornadoes or snow — is below average when compared to California and the U.S. as a whole. However, when it comes to wildfires, the county’s risk — skewed by the risk in the mountains — is above average when compared to California and the rest of the country.

Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...