The U.S. Counties Where Natural Disaster Is Most Likely to Strike

Tornado, wildfire, snowstorm

Cultura RM Exclusive/Jason Persoff Stormdoctor/Getty Images
WildandFree/iStock; debibishop/iStock

As humans, we like to think we’ve conquered all aspects of our environment. After all, we’ve turned swamps into thriving metropolises and parched deserts into gaudy and glimmering gambling meccas. We’ve built residences that soar more than a thousand feet above ground. (As for turning reality TV stars into astonishingly viable candidates for high office? That’s a whole ‘nother story.)

But remember the proverb “Pride always goes before a fall”? Here’s the real estate translation: When Mother Nature turns against you and the place where you’ve made your home, sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do.

In the South, recent catastrophic floods in Louisiana claimed 13 lives and cost $8.7 billion in damages. On the West Coast, major earthquakes rattle the ground with startling regularity—and threaten to do much more. In the Midwest, tornadoes frequently sweep through farmland and communities alike. And every year, hurricanes barrel through the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The one bit of control you can exert as a homeowner: relocating away from parts of the country widely associated with specific varieties of disaster. But of course, moves sometimes seem to mean trading in one destructive force of nature for another. Move from Miami to Los Angeles and swap hurricanes for earthquakes, the conventional wisdom goes.

But are there places that are actually riskier than their reputations might suggest—perfect storms of disasters?

To find out, our weatherproofed data team dug up more than three decades of data on six major types of disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, wildfires, and floods. For each U.S. county, we calculated a “disaster index” based on the number of occurrences of each type, with equal weight.

Here are what we determined to be the top 20 disaster-prone counties in the United States:

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Yikes! Californians are certainly living on the edge.

Southern California, in particular, accounts for six out of the 20 top counties at highest risk of earthquake, fire, and flooding.

Sitting on several active fault lines, this much sought-after region has withstood multiple destructive earthquakes, including a magnitude 7.3 in Kern County (No. 10) in 1952. Low levels of rainfall, high temperatures, and dry vegetation contribute to frequent wildfires. The 2003 Cedar Fire engulfed 750,000 acres and caused more than $2 billion in property damage in San Diego County (No. 20). Not enough destruction for you? Prolonged rainfall often triggers floods, which in turn can set off mudslides in the deforested terrain.

Statistically speaking, things look particularly perilous for vast San Bernardino County (No. 1), which covers more than 20,000 square miles. On average, San Bernardino gets 53 large wildfires, 22 winter storms, 18 floods, and 1.7 tornadoes every decade.

Florida looms large not just in presidential election contests but also in wind-fueled disasters. Pummeled by hurricanes and tornadoes every year, the Sunshine State claims four slots on the list. Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, led to massive evacuations and probably the largest traffic jam in Florida’s history, as 55,000 people fled the Keys, in Monroe County (No. 2), for the mainland. Miami-Dade County (No. 5) was also hit hard as Andrew moved north. In total, Andrew destroyed 49,000 homes and damaged 108,000 more.

So strap on some protective gear, and let’s take a look at the United States, disaster by disaster.

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The famed 800-mile San Andreas Fault, splitting California from north of San Francisco all the way down to the U.S.-Mexico border, is where two tectonic plates meet, making it one of the most earthquake-prone regions (as well as the subject of a really weak movie starring The Rock). The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 ranks as one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history: About 3,000 people died, and more than 80% of the city was destroyed.

Much like stressed-out modern workers, fault lines need to release stress, and the southern portion of the San Andreas Fault has been building up tension since 1857, according to the Los Angeles Times. The director of the Southern California Earthquake Center said this year that Southern Californians should prepare for a temblor as strong as a magnitude 8, the Times reported.

The threat of “The Really Big One” has been hanging over the state for well over a century. Most experts agree it will occur. But no one knows when or quite how devastating it will be.

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In 2015, about 68,000 wildfires were reported around the county, causing damage to nearly 2,700 homes and requiring $2.1 billion in federal spending on suppression, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. California, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon encounter some of the worst wildfires. In Idaho County, ID, where several national forests lie adjacent to one another, an average of 16.5 large conflagrations occur every year—the highest in the country. In California, wildfires are often aggravated by the hot, dry winds, which can carry a spark for miles.

Research from the University of California, Merced, shows that wildfire activity in forests in the West has continued to increase exponentially since the 1980s. The area burned in the northern Rockies, in particular, has increased by 3,000%.

The length of the fire season has also grown significantly, from 138 days in the 1970s to 222 days in the past decade.

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Hurricanes? What hurricanes?

Comparing this map with others, it’s clear that our national fascination with hurricanes—and even the names we decide to give each one—might just be way out of proportion to their actual occurrence. Since 1900, hurricanes formed in the Atlantic basin have struck the U.S. mainland just less than twice a year, on average. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that Florida, Texas, and Louisiana usually bear the brunt of hurricanes’ aftermath.

But here’s the deal: When hurricanes do hit, they can be catastrophic.

Florida’s southernmost Monroe County, exposed on three sides to the ocean, tops the list, with 32 direct or indirect hurricane strikes in 110 years. Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, pummeled by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has the second-biggest risk, with 25 hits.

By comparison, the Northeast coast is less affected by hurricanes, but is by no means spared. The 2012 Superstorm Sandy brought a record storm surge to New York City and the New Jersey shore, tearing up 370,000 homes and leaving 8.5 million people without power. The damages totaled $65 billion.

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When most Americans think of tornadoes, they think of “Tornado Alley” in the southern plains of the central U.S. The cataclysmic tornado that struck Joplin, MO, in 2011 claimed 158 lives and tore through more than 7,000 homes.

But there are several lesser-known tornado zones lurking in other parts of the country. Florida is also vulnerable to tornadoes simply because thunderstorms can occur almost daily. The Gulf Coast area has a separate tornado zone dubbed “Dixie Alley,” where tornadoes are less frequent but sometimes even more deadly, with high-speed winds.

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Each winter, blizzards and winter storms blast the western mountain areas and the Northeast, resulting in property damage, power outages, car crashes, and sometimes fatalities. One of the most infamous: New England’s Great Blizzard of 1978, which dumped more than 3 feet of snow, with drifts up to 27 feet (recorded unofficially in Lincoln, RI). One hundred people perished, and thousands of people were stranded on the roads. The damages were almost $2 billion in today’s dollars.

And if snowstorms seem to be getting worse—it’s because they are. The number of blizzards each year has doubled in the past two decades, according to a preliminary research study by Ball State University. From 1960 to 1994, the average was about nine blizzards per year. But since 1995, the average has increased to 19 a year.

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In the Northeast and Midwest, snowmelt combined with rainfall can lead to severe river floods in spring. In 1993, the overflow of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers caused epic floods that lasted for months. At least 10,000 homes were totally destroyed; hundreds of towns were affected, while at least 75 towns were completely submerged by floodwaters.

You may notice that parts of the Southwest are also lit up on the flood map. One reason is that those counties are larger than the eastern counties, and therefore have a higher probability of seeing flood events, according to weather.com.

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