Poll: Storms, heat, drought, floods and wildfires all common experiences in 2023

Published 5:51 pm Friday, March 22, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series on Americans’ experiences with and perceptions of severe weather events.

By Craig Helmstetter and Rithwik Kalale, Minnesota Public Radio News

Two-thirds of American adults indicate they experienced at least one of five major weather events in 2023, according to the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s latest Mood of the Nation Poll, conducted with 1,000 American adults from Jan. 11-17, 2024.

Email newsletter signup

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 2023 was the fifth hottest year in U.S. history and the country saw a record 28 separate billion-dollar weather disasters. These conditions were not at all lost on the American people.

In response to the question “in the past 12 months, has your local community experienced the following?” the survey found:

  • 45 percent had experienced severe storms
  • 40 percent had experienced “long periods of unusually hot weather”
  • 20 percent had experienced droughts or water shortages
  • 19 percent had experienced severe flooding
  • 12 percent had experienced severe wildfires

Forty percent of American adults indicate they experienced two or more of these extreme weather events in 2023, including a small minority who indicated that they had been hit by all five. On average, respondents indicated they experienced 1.4 of the severe weather events listed in the survey.

Some segments of the U.S. population may be more vulnerable to severe weather than others, but this survey of 1,000 Americans does not reveal significant gender, age, racial, educational or income differences in the proportion of Americans reporting recent experiences of extreme weather.

The survey does, however, reveal that a larger proportion of residents in certain areas of the country report experiencing severe heat, drought and wildfires.

We specifically tested for differences between two overlapping regions of interest and the remainder of the country:

  • Southwestern states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
  • “Ten Across” states, or those connected by the Interstate-10 corridor: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas.

When compared to those living in other parts of the country, a larger proportion of those living in southwestern states and Ten Across states indicated they had experienced long periods of unusually hot weather, droughts or water shortages, and severe wildfires. However, a smaller proportion of southwestern state residents indicate that they experienced severe storms in 2023 compared to those living outside of the southwest.

Even more Democrats than Republicans report experiencing severe weather events

The survey results also reveal a less dramatic but consistent difference in weather-related experiences according to political affiliation. A larger proportion of Democrats than Republicans indicate their community was impacted by each of the five weather events included in the survey.

Some of these differences are statistically significant, including the 13 percentage-point difference in the proportions indicating that they experienced unusually hot weather, but others are not (the relatively smaller difference in proportions experiencing drought and wildfires), but the pattern is consistent.

On average, Democrats reported experiencing 1.6 of the five events in 2023, compared to an average of 1.1 among Republicans. It may or may not be that generally Democrats tend to live in areas prone to more weather events, but among respondents to this survey it is not obvious that Democrats live in more drought or heat prone areas.

Dr. Eric Plutzer, director of Penn State’s Mood of the Nation Poll, put these findings in context, noting: “This pattern is similar to the consistent finding that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe that global temperatures have risen over the last century, and suggests that partisanship can lead citizens to characterize their local fires, floods and extreme events as more or less severe.”

Americans’ estimates of impacts of drought and flooding

Support for various public policies depends, in part, on the degree to which the public perceives a problem. The January 2024 Mood of the Nation Poll included two questions related to assessing the public’s perceptions of weather-related problems:

Now, please think about the country as a whole.

1. Just your best guess, what percent of Americans today would you say live in areas where droughts and water shortages have led governments to restrict water usage?

2. Just your best guess, what percent of Americans today would you say live in areas where frequent flooding makes it very expensive or impossible to get homeowner’s insurance?

Respondents to the web-based survey answered by adjusting an on-screen slider to a position along a continuum ranging from zero percent to 100 percent.

Overall, respondents gave very similar estimates in response to the two questions:

On average, respondents estimated that 38 percent of their fellow Americans have endured water restrictions due to drought.

On average, respondents estimated that 37 percent of their fellow Americans live in areas where frequent flooding makes it very expensive or impossible to get homeowners insurance.

The average estimates did not vary significantly by gender, generation, race and ethnicity, educational attainment, annual family income or even area of residence according to the two regional definitions used in our analysis (those living in southwestern states versus the rest of the nation, and those living in southern Ten Across states versus the rest of the nation).

There were, however, small but statistically significant differences in the estimates provided by Democrats and Republicans, with Democrats providing higher estimates of the proportion of their fellow Americans who have been subject to droughts as well as higher estimates of the proportion of Americans who have difficulty obtaining insurance due to flooding.

Larger differences in estimates existed between those who had recently experienced either droughts or flooding themselves and those who indicated they had not had those personal experiences; an average estimate of more than 10 percentage points higher in each case.

Further, people who have experienced a higher number of adverse weather events tend to estimate that higher proportions of others are impacted by severe weather. In this survey we asked if respondents had experienced five types of extreme weather.

On average, respondents who experienced three or more different kinds of extreme events estimate that about half of their fellow Americans experienced droughts severe enough to result in water rationing and flooding severe enough to make it difficult to obtain insurance. Those whose communities experienced only one kind of severe event estimated that about one-third of Americans live in areas vulnerable to severe flooding or drought.

However, even those who had not personally experienced any of those extreme weather events estimated that around 30 percent of their fellow Americans were adversely impacted by drought and flooding. That estimate of 30 percent is still much higher than the 20 percent who reported experiencing droughts or severe flooding in their own communities — at least in the past year.