How likely are you to be affected by a natural disaster while living in the United States?
There are an average of 33 major disaster declarations in the United States per year. Your individual risk level depends on such factors as where you live, the types of natural disasters likely to affect your region, and the surrounding infrastructure. The surrounding infrastructure in your area will also determine how quickly you can recover after being affected by a natural disaster.
The 3 Types of Natural Disasters
Tulane University categorizes natural disasters into three broad categories: geologic hazards, atmospheric hazards, and other.
- Geologic hazards are natural disasters caused by geologic processes, and they include phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, and tsunamis.
- Atmospheric hazards include phenomena like hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms.
- The “other” category includes wildfires, epidemics, and insect infestations. Tulane University further describes disasters as “rapid onset” and “slow onset.” A “rapid onset” disaster, like a flash flood, strikes suddenly and with little warning. A “slow onset” disaster, like a drought, can take years to fully develop.
Natural Disasters in the United States
As mentioned earlier, the United States does experience a fairly high number of natural disasters. Natural disasters tend to be more common in coastal areas, and the US has three coasts: East, West, and Gulf. It also has large rivers like the Mississippi. Coastal areas are susceptible to such disasters as hurricanes, flooding, and tsunamis.
According to FEMA’s Disaster Assistance website, floods are one of the most common natural disasters in the US. They can range in size from a single neighborhood to a whole river basin that covers several states. Floods are often caused by another disaster like a hurricane. They can happen just about anywhere, and can cause more property damage than other types of disasters.
Other natural disasters that commonly occur in the US include tornadoes, heat waves, earthquakes, droughts, wildfires, thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions, and winter storms. While heat waves and droughts can occur anywhere, many of the others take place in more specific areas. Volcanic eruptions, for example, happen mainly in Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and California. In fact, the volcano Kilauea on the island of Hawaii has been erupting almost constantly since early 1983.
Which States Suffer the Most Natural Disasters?
In 2014, Bankrate.com conducted a study that covered the years 1953 to 2013. During that time, different presidents had declared over 2,000 events to be major disasters that entitled the survivors to federal aid. That is just over 33 “major disasters” per year.
Bankrate.com found that just ten states were involved in a third of the major disasters.
- Texas: Texas tops that list, with 88 major disaster declarations since 1953 – or at least one every year. Texas is prone to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. For instance, the city of Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
- California: California, which is notorious for its earthquakes, has had 79 major disaster declarations since 1953. It has also suffered wildfires, floods, droughts, and winter storms.
- Oklahoma: Oklahoma has had 75 major disaster declarations since 1953. Many of these have been for tornadoes since the state has over 55 tornadoes every year. Oklahoma has also had wildfires, floods, and winter storms.
The other states in Bankrate.com’s list of the 10 most disaster-prone states include the following:
- New York
This does not mean residents of the other 40 states along with Washington, DC are home-free, they made up the other 2/3 of the major disaster declarations. The location of your home definitely determines both the likelihood of suffering a natural disaster and the type of natural disaster you will most likely experience.
Types of Disasters and Where They Are Most Likely to Strike
Since the United States is home to such a diverse natural environment, it tends to experience a large number of nature related problems. However, some disasters are more common in specific states, or areas of the country, than other disasters. Here we will take a look at which states are most likely to experience each type of natural disaster along with some of the most notable disasters in history of each type.
The United States has the unfortunate distinction of having more tornadoes than any other country in the world. Most of them take place in Tornado Alley, in the Midwestern States.
The states most likely to be affected by tornadoes are:
- South Dakota
In May 2007, a monstrous F5 tornado ripped through Greensburg, Kansas and destroyed 95 percent of the buildings. The survivors famously decided to rebuild their town using the most environmentally friendly techniques and materials available at the time. They now source their electricity via wind power.
To learn how to prepare for and survive a tornado, see How to Survive a Tornado at Home, in Your Car, or Anywhere.
The US has 3 coastlines (Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific), and obviously, hurricanes are most common in these regions, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
The states most likely to be affected by hurricanes are:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- New York
Hurricanes can be extrememly devestating particularly due to the fact that they can cause both wind damage like a tornado and water damage due to resulting flooding. The Galveston Hurricane (Texas) of 1900 was the worst ever recorded Hurricane. It was responsible for the deaths of between 6,000 and 12,000 people, mostly due to a lack of warning. Hurricane Katrina (Louisiana) in 2005 caused an estimated $100 billion in damage.
To learn how to prepare yourself and your home for a hurricane, see How to Quickly Prepare Your Home for a Hurricane.
Mudslides and Landslides
Mudslides and landslides are most likely to occur in the Rocky and the Appalachian Mountains, and along the Pacific Coast. This is due to their rugged, steep terrain, along with their propensity for wet weather patterns.
The states most likely to be affected by disastrous mudslides and landslides are:
The largest landslide in the US history happened just outside Salt Lake City (Utah) in Bingham Canyon in 2013. Despite over 55 million cubic meters of mass sliding, surprisingly no one was injured or killed. However, the deadliest landslide occurred in La Conchita (California) in 2005. Though this was a small landslide with only 200,000 cubic meters of mass, it went through a densely populated neighborhood, and killed 10 people.
To learn how to survive a mudslide or landslide, see The Red Cross’s Landslide Safety page.
Flooding can occur due to excessive rain, human error (such as a dam bursting), or a hurricane. Floods are common throughout the US, and you should probably prepare for this disaster above most others, depending on where you live.
The states most likely to be affected by a flood are:
- New York
- New Jersey
- South Carolina
- North Carolina
The Great Mississippi and Missouri River Floods in 1993 caused an estimated $30 billion in damages. The states affected by this single flood were Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The most deadly flood in the U.S. was the Johnstown Flood (Pennsylvania) in 1889. This flood claimed the lives of over 2,200 people when large amounts of water burst a dam and immediately flooded the town below.
To learn how to survive a flood, see Ready.gov’s Flood Preparedness page.
Wildfires are typically caused by human error (cigarettes, fireworks, or loose campfires). However they are often caused by lightning strikes as well. Eastern US Wildfires are usually caused by human error, and Western US Wildfires are more likely to be caused by lightning.
The states most likely to be affected by wildfires are:
- North Carolina
- Georgia, Oregon
The 2004 Taylor Complex Fire in Alaska burned an estimated 6.6 million acres of land, making it the largest in recorded US history. While the deadliest wildfire started in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1871. It burned over 1 million acres and killed between 1,500 and 2,500 people. The exact numbers are unknown because the population records were also burned in the fires.
To learn how to prepare for, and escape a wildfire, see Ready.gov’s Wildfire Preparedness Page.
Volcanic Eruptions are unique in the sense that they can cause damage abruptly from a sudden eruption, or they can cause damage after the fact due to lava flows. Fires resulting from these lava flows are also a major concern and often cause additional damage.
The states most likely to be affected by volcanic eruptions are:
The most costly volcanic eruption, was that of Mount St. Helens (Washington) in 1980. This single eruption cause an estimated $860 million in damages.
To learn how to survive a volcano, see Ready.gov’s Volcano Preparedness Page.
Earthquakes are always sudden in nature which is why they can cause such significant damages. Aftershocks however, are somewhat more predictable and can cause even more damage than the initial quake itself. Resulting fires due to ruptured gas lines are also the cause of significant damages after an earthquake.
The states most likely to be affected by earthquakes are:
The Northridge Quake in San Fernando Valley (California) in 1994 was the most expensive US Earthquake, causing $44 million in damage (with only $15 million worth being actually covered by insurance). This quake claimed the lived of 60 people and more than 7,000 were injured. The 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco (California) killed at least 3,000 people and leveled 80% of the city.
To learn what how to be prepared for an earthquake, see What to Do Before, During, and After an Earthquake.
Basic Preparation Can Save Your Family
FEMA recommends these six general tips on how to prepare for a natural disaster:
- Know where your home’s gas shutoff valve is located. Ask your gas & electric company if you don’t know. Shutting off the gas can prevent leaks, explosions, noxious fumes, and fires.
- Know where your home’s fuse box is. Disasters greatly increase the risk of fire, turning off the electrical power may prevent an electrical fire or shock.
- Have your family set up an emergency plan. Figure out how you will stay in touch with each other, and your plan to track down missing members. Choose a refuge ahead of time where everybody can meet. Customize your emergency plan for different natural disasters. For example, while hiding in the basement during a tornado is a good idea, during a flood it is not.
- Make sure your insurance covers disasters. Floods are the most common disaster in the US. Many home/renter insurance policies don’t cover flooding, and you’ll have to source coverage outside of your usual plan. The same is true for earthquakes.
- If you have pets, locate a pet-friendly shelter beforehand. If a disaster area isn’t safe for you, it’s not safe for your pets either. In the event that you are unable to take your animals with you during an evacuation, you need a plan for your critters as well. Know that you may not return to your pets as quickly as you’d like. Many shelters can’t or won’t take pets for health reasons, so you need to find one that will. If you have livestock, search for places that will accommodate your animals during a natural disaster. For example, many counties turn the fairgrounds into a safe area for livestock during floods or fires. If there is no public safe place, network with others in the area, and find nearby farmers or ranchers who are willing to take them in. Before a natural disaster, mark your animals with your contact information, should they get lost.
- Know the local evacuation routes. Not all communities have set evacuation routes. If that’s the case, do some planning and preparing of your own, and also pay attention to radio or TV news reports for instructions. Have a battery-powered radio handy in case of a power outage.
Do want to see where you can live to avoid natural disasters? Take a look at this map from The New York Times.
FEMA stresses that you should make your plans beforehand, for you may have only minutes to respond to a disaster.
While in the United States we are generally very likely to experience a natural disaster, we are also generally better equipped to manage it. Knowing what natural disasters are most likely in your state will help you to focus your preparedness on the areas that are most important.
Though there’s never a surefire way to know about natural disasters ahead of time, you can always do your best to prepare for disasters that are likely to occur where you live. Read about preparation, stockpile food and water, have an emergency plan created, and know which steps to take during the actual disaster.
Which disasters are most common in your area, and what are your disaster prep plans? Californians, and Alaskans, are you prepared? It seems you’re at the highest risk for, well, everything. Comment below!