Many people delight at the prospect of waking up on Christmas morning to an idyllic winter wonderland, with beautiful snow covering the ground. Some even travel for the chance at a white Christmas, but anyone who lives in America’s colder climates will tell you it’s not always magical. The reality of a winter storm can be quite different — like several billion dollars different.
Winter snow and ice create transportation gridlocks, collapse roofs and even destroy commercial crops — costing taxpayers and insurance companies alike enormous sums of money. For anyone curious about just how costly this can be, the National Climatic Data Center has kept records on the inflation-adjusted costs of storm damage since 1980, making it easy to see which storms have hit people’s pocketbooks the hardest.
Here’s more about the costliest winter weather events in American history.
Northeast Winter Storm
- Dates: March 1-3, 2018
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $2.2 billion
The old saying goes that March “comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb” and vice versa, but it seems unlikely the Northeast got anywhere near $2.2 billion worth of mild Spring weather on the tail end of March this year. After a powerful nor’easter slammed the region, damages from a combination of high winds — the heaviest gust hit 97 mph — heavy snow and coastal erosion translated to billions in damage.
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Midwest/Southeast/Northeast Winter Storm
- Dates: Jan. 5-8, 2014
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $2.3 billion
At a certain point, maybe it’s just the “America” winter storm. The regions affected by this 2014 winter storm included some 17 states. The National Snow Analysis performed by NOAA found that — at its peak on Jan. 6 — 52 percent of the country had snow on the ground, up from 36.9 percent just six days earlier. And some places were better equipped to handle it than others: the South was crippled by a series of disastrous traffic jams as the warm-weather states weren’t prepared to deal with snowfall.
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- Dates: April 4-10, 2007
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $2.6 billion
Some of the costliest winter weather doesn’t even really involve snow or any precipitation for that matter. That’s because unexpected freezes can be utterly devastating to farmers in states like Florida or California, destroying whole harvests and even potentially damaging valuable orchards. And in 2007, unseasonably warm weather led to early growth for a variety of crops in March, only to give way to a cold snap that would set record lows at some 1,500 weather stations that caused some $2.6 billion in freeze damage across the country.
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- Dates: Jan. 20-22, 1985
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $2.9 billion
One state that can be especially susceptible to devastating freezes is Florida, where a dip below freezing can threaten its lucrative citrus crop. That’s precisely what happened in 1985 when arctic air was pushed south, resulting in single-digit temperatures across Northern and Central Florida. Besides causing cancellations for then President Ronald Reagan’s second term inauguration parade due to wind chills in Washington D.C. as low as 10 degrees below zero, it also damaged an estimated 90 percent of the state’s orange and grapefruit crop.
Central and Eastern Winter Storm
- Dates: Feb. 14-20, 2015
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $3.2 billion
A little over a year after the winter storm of 2014 devastated the country, it was topped by a 2015 cold wave that had the average temperature in the northeast falling to 13.5 degrees — some 12.7 degrees below the norm. And while most of the country was hit by frigid temperatures, the Northeast got hit by a series of winter storms that dumped snow across the region. The weight of the snow collapsed roofs across Massachusetts, with the damages in that state alone reaching $1 billion.
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- Dates: Dec. 20-28, 1998
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $3.9 billion
This is one Christmas that was most likely not especially merry for growers in the Central and Southern San Joaquin valley. From a weather perspective, about a week of temperatures under 27 degrees is, well, pretty weak tea when compared to sub-zero temperatures and feet of snow. However, from an agricultural perspective, that was all it took to destroy over a third of the state’s citrus crop and cost farmers billions.
- Dates: Dec. 23-25, 1989
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $4.2 billion
The Bing Crosby classic “White Christmas” might be a beloved seasonal tune for many, but it’s unlikely to be popular among America’s citrus farmers. That’s because four different freezes that caused crop destruction occurred during or immediately before Christmas — just in time to ruin the holiday, not soon enough to revise your letter to Santa Claus to ask for $4 billion worth of oranges.
1989 was another year where Florida citrus farmers probably didn’t feel as many tidings of joy as other years: severe freeze damage in central/northern Florida devastated their crop to the tune of $4.2 billion.
Northeast Winter Storm
- Dates: Dec. 10-13, 1992
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $4.5 billion
While nor’easters might be the nor’m for New England winters, there are some that are significantly worse than others. Take for instance the mid-December storm of 1992 that hammered New England and caused $4.5 billion in damage as it dumped snow across the Northeast. The city of Albany saw some 94.2 inches — i.e. a little more than one Shaquille O’Neal worth of snowfall — and drifts in the Berkshires hit 12 feet.
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Blizzards/Floods of 1995-1996
- Dates: Jan. 1-31, 1996
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $4.9 billion
Usually, floods and snowstorms are sort of mutually exclusive. That’s the thing about snow, it usually stays where it lands. Which, while pretty annoying when it comes to shoveling your driveway, it does mean that you’re not likely to be swept away in a “flash snow” unless you’re mountaineering. Of course, that had to make the winter storms of 1995-1996 especially frustrating for many residents of the hardest hit areas. The one to three feet of snow dumped on the Northeast from Jan. 6-8 was bad enough — Philadelphia got over two feet in a single day — but it only got worse when things suddenly warmed up. The massive snowfall turned into a massive flood — killing 33 people and forcing another 200,000 to evacuate.
Freeze, Cold Wave of 1983
- Dates: Dec. 15-25, 1983
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $5.2 billion
When the Florida Secretary of Agriculture Doyle Conner dubbed the 1985 disaster as the “Freeze of the Century,” one has to wonder just how long his memory was. That’s because the 1983 freeze — while more localized to the 11 counties on the northern border of the state’s “citrus belt” — was ultimately much pricier. That could have been because the Frost Warning Service missed the forecast and growers were left without time to prepare. And when did Florida’s citrus farmers take this hit? You guessed it: right around Christmas.
Southeast Ice Storm
- Dates: Feb. 8-13, 1994
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $5.2 billion
Few things are as beautiful as the sight of trees recently covered by a thin layer of ice, gently sparkling in the morning light. That is until the additional weight starts causing massive tree limbs to start crashing to the ground. At that point, while still quite beautiful, it’s also really terrifying.
If you’re ever been through an ice storm, it’s not hard to imagine where $5.2 billion in damage can come from. And the storm that hit the southeastern United States in 1994 was especially bad due to both how widespread it was and just how much precipitation it involved, ultimately wreaking havoc throughout the region with icy rounds and downed trees.
- Dates: Dec. 18-25, 1990
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $6.7 billion
The fourth and final December freeze — i.e. really awful Christmas for local farmers — hit California in 1990. Much like the freeze that would come eight years later, the area primarily affected was the agricultural hotbed of the San Joaquin Valley, with 200,000 acres of citrus crops destroyed and some 100,000 Californians losing their jobs, including 15,000 in the Central Valley alone.
East Coast Blizzard and Severe Weather
- Dates: March 11-14, 1993
- CPI-Adjusted Total Cost: $9.8 billion
The so-called “Storm of the Century” still carries the biggest overall price tag even a quarter-century later. The storm cost the lives of 270 people and included hurricane-force winds that hit as high as 144 mph in New Hampshire, huge snowfall that included over two feet dumped on Pittsburgh and a whopping 56 inches in parts of Tennessee, and an estimated 15 tornadoes caused across Florida in addition to a 12-foot storm surge in Taylor County, Fla. And while not in America, parts of Northern New Brunswick experienced a shocking temperature drop of 45 degrees is just 18 hours. All told, damages reached nearly $10 billion.
Click through to read more about how much our changing climate might cost you.
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