REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir. Tornadoes, floods, wildfires, blizzards. In 2011, we saw more than our share of natural disasters in the United States. In fact, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, we set the record for disaster declarations this year with nearly 100 recorded throughout the country.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Here's a little of what 2011 sounded like from the point of view of witnesses, survivors and victims of the severe weather that struck throughout the country this past year. In the spring, tornadoes swept through the southeast.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: These storms are of such a magnitude that it - they are destroying homes, brick homes, stick-built homes as well as mobile homes and businesses.
NAYLOR: In May, a devastating tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri. Some people sheltered in a convenient store walk-in refrigerator where a witness recorded the scene with his cell phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SCREAMING)
NAYLOR: This spring also saw the Mississippi River spilling its banks, causing floods from Missouri to Louisiana. In August, Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast with wind damage and flooding from North Carolina to Vermont.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I believe five bridges are totally gone. TEAM Firehouse, half the house is gone, totally gone, gone down the (unintelligible). Unbelievable. I've never seen this so bad.
NAYLOR: And wildfires swept through the southwest helped by a severe drought and excessive heat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Looks very much like a moonscape. It's all gray and black. And the ashes are just blowing through the wind right now.
NAYLOR: And there was more. A rare earthquake jostled the Mid-Atlantic, and Halloween weekend brought an early season snowstorm to the northeast. According to the National Climatic Data Center, which tracks such things, there were a record 12 so-called billion-dollar disasters in 2011. The center puts the total damages from the year's severe weather at $52 billion.
And that's one reason for the large number of disaster declarations, according to Mark Merritt. He's president of Witt Associates, a disaster consulting firm. Merritt, a former official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, says many states are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the damages.
MARK MERRITT PRESIDENT, WITT ASSOCIATES: Disaster assistance are designed only to be utilized when it exceeds the capability of state and local governments. So as you're finding state and local governments are feeling the pain of the economic downturn, they're much more susceptible to the types of cost that are incurred after a disaster, so they're more dependent upon the federal government for assistance.
NAYLOR: A federally declared major disaster means Washington will help pay the costs of recovery. This year, just three states - Michigan, South Carolina and West Virginia - made it through the year without any federally declared disasters. This record level of disaster declarations has led to some criticism from conservatives who contend the Obama administration has been too quick to pick up the tab for the states. But Merritt disagrees.
ASSOCIATES: Every administration gets criticized for their declaration process. And from what I've observed, and I've been doing this eight years in FEMA and then 10 years out, those policies and procedures have - changed very little. And I actually think it's much more difficult today, with the scrutiny that's being focused on the declaration process, to actually get one through.
NAYLOR: The year of disasters has taken its toll on federal coffers. Congress voted last month to replenish FEMA's disaster relief fund to the tune of $6.4 billion. Meanwhile, from Joplin, Missouri to Rutland, Vermont, rebuilding continues, a task that for many communities will last well into next year. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.