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The most dangerous places to live in America that are prone to natural disasters

Key Points
  • These are the riskiest states for extreme weather in America, according to forecast data by NOAA.
  • From 2016 to 2018, the average number of billion-dollar disasters totaled 15 each year, while the average for 1980–2018 was just 6.2 events per year.
  • The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, claims the total cost of last year's hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other disasters was about $91 billion.
  • A FEMA spokesperson tells CNBC that "the need for forward-leaning action is greater than ever before."
A bomb cyclone developing over the Midwest
Source: NASA

From the heat wave currently sweeping the Midwest to the oncoming ravages of hurricane season in the south, extreme and volatile weather impacts every state in the nation. But some states are more at risk than others as global warming changes the entire landscape of the country.

In 2018 the United States experienced 14 disasters that cost the economy as much or more than $1 billion dollars each. But the total cost of these hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other disasters that struck the U.S. last year is about $91 billion, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks U.S. weather and climate events that have great economic and societal impacts.

Some studies speculate that a warming climate may be making these disasters more frequent and more intense, and the areas they hit will change over time. The trend has people in the U.S. wondering which state is the safest place to live and work.

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"As natural and man-made hazards become increasingly complex and difficult to predict, the need for forward-leaning action is greater than ever before," Michael Hart, news desk manager of FEMA's Office of External Affairs, told CNBC via email.

Natural disasters are also taking a toll on the U.S. economy, and it is spurring migration shifts.

The catastrophes of 2018 weren't an anomaly: Over each of the past three years, an average of 15 billion-dollar disasters have occurred, while the average for 1980–2018 was just 6.2 events per year. The number of billion-dollar disasters is clearly trending upward, writes Adam B. Smith, a climate scientist with the NOAA. Since 1980 weather and climate disasters have cost the US $1.6 trillion in damages, the agency reports.

According to a 2018 study by Anthony Oliver-Smith the displacement of increasing numbers of people due to natural disasters has become a major challenge to states — and the federal government.

FEMA pushes for a "culture of preparedness" at the national and local levels, Hart said. Being prepared at every level reduces death and injury as well as helping to lower the cost of a natural disaster. An independent study co-funded by FEMA in 2018 found that every $1 spent by the federal government on mitigation efforts saves an average of $6 in spending in the future. "This return on investment shows that investing now is an opportunity to reduce future disaster costs and accelerate recovery," he said.

That said, these are the riskiest states for extreme weather in America, according to the NOAA's analysys of its storm events database.

Texas

One state really stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that would be Texas, " says Smith. Over NOAA's 40 years of analysis, the Lone Star State has experienced more than 100 separate $1 billion disasters, from the Houston floods and hurricanes of 2017 to flooding and even winter storms, which are more usually associated with the Eastern Seaboard.

Texas has the highest frequency of extreme weather events over the period of analysis, and it also has the highest inflation-adjusted costs related to extreme weather. The government estimate of more than $250 billion in damage is a conservative one, Smith says. The real number is likely much higher.

"Texas takes an all-hazards approach to disaster management and preparedness, whether it is hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, extreme heat or cold," Chuck Phinney, chief of staff for the Texas Division of Emergency Management, told CNBC. That means the basic plan for dealing with disasters is the same no matter what comes: Local jurisdictions lead the emergency response push, with the state organization providing support for response and recovery.

The devastation after a tornado touches down in Texas.
Photo: Getty Images

"Other than using the private sector and nonprofit organizations in our response efforts, we do not work directly with businesses," he writes. "However, one of our objectives following a disaster is to restore critical infrastructure as quickly as possible so that businesses can open. Because disasters begin and end locally, we suggest that businesses work with the local emergency managers."

Florida

Florida doesn't experience anything like the frequency of billion-dollar disasters, but the ones it does experience — mostly hurricanes — are among the most costly to deal with, Smith says, making it a risky place for business. "As a result of all that hurricane impact, Florida has the second highest total damage cost only behind Texas since 1980," he says, "about $225 billion in cumulative damage, using present dollars."

Hurricane Michael slammed into Florida, killing nearly four dozen people and destroying entire coastal communities. The storm broke records as the first of its size to strike the Florida Panhandle since records began in 1851.

Coastal hurricanes bring storm surge with them, causing flooding and much other damage to property and loss of life. Flooding causes more deaths than any other kind of natural disaster the state experiences, according to state resources, and can slow regional recovery significantly. "A vital piece of an individual's recovery is insurance," FEMA's Hart told CNBC. Recent historic flooding throughout the country, including in Florida, highlights the importance of flood insurance.

Local residents make their way across a washed-out road after category 4 Hurricane Michael made landfall along the Florida panhandle on Oct. 12, 2018, in Mexico Beach.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

"Certain areas of Florida are doing a pretty good job at making sure our landscapes are sufficiently intact to withstand extreme events," said Brett Scheffers, a global change ecologist at the University of Florida.

As an example, Alachua County, whose county seat is Gainesville, has an active program for land conservation, he said. "This maintains healthy forested and wetland ecosystems, which in turn maintain freshwater supply and builds and maintains resilience into the landscape." In other areas of the state, however, "there is extensive development and building along coastlines, which makes communities at risk of extreme events such as hurricanes but also long-term events such as sea-level rise."

California

California's historic wildfires and struggles with related air pollution have been in the news over the past few years, and those factors do make it among the riskiest places to live and work, Smith says.

The fire that wiped out the northern California community of Paradise and killed 85 people in November 2018 was the deadliest wildfire in the state's history. It was also California's most destructive wildfire, destroying nearly 14,000 homes. Its death toll far surpassed that of the devastating fires in Sonoma and Napa counties last year, which left 44 people dead.

Couple hugs after they manage to recover a keepsake bracelet in the rubble of their destroyed home, destroyed by the wildfire in Paradise, California, on Nov. 15, 2018.
Marcus Yam | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

From late July into August, the Mendocino Complex fire burned over 450,000 acres in Northern California, becoming the largest wildfire in state history. It surpassed last December's Thomas fire, which previously held the record by burning over 280,000 acres in Southern California.

As of early December, California's wildfires had burned more than 2 1/2 times as much area as they did by the same time last year. They've scorched more than 875,000 acres this year ― eclipsing the five-year average of about 230,000 acres burned.

But Smith says there's also another disaster-related factor that his work doesn't account for but which could potentially have a devastating effect on the state economy: earthquakes. The U.S. Geological Survey contends that California has the most damaging earthquakes because of its greater population and extensive infrastructure.

Last week's two massive earthquakes — a magnitude 6.4 that rocked southern California an July 4 and a 7.1 just a day later, the strongest one to hit the region in 20 years — is just a reminder that the Big One is coming.

"It's just a matter of time," says Smith.

Yet residents are worried about how prepared they will be when it does come: The nation's first publicly available earthquake early warning mobile app, called ShakeAlert, was launched earlier this year as part of a pilot program designed to give Los Angeles County residents a few seconds of warning before the shaking. ShakeAlerts are issued for all quakes, including aftershocks, of magnitude 5.0 or greater in Los Angeles County.

But the warning never came.

That's because the Independence Day earthquake was centered to the north in the Mojave Desert in Kern County and did not reach the shaking threshold in Los Angeles County.

Funding has been secured to complete the network in California in the next two years.

Bottles scatter the floor of a convenience store, following a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck on July 6, 2019, in Ridgecrest, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images News | Getty Images

"It is imperative that Californians remain vigilant in preparing for the next disaster," a government spokesperson told CNBC. "Having an emergency plan and following evacuation orders is vital to making our communities more resilient and able to recover quickly from a disaster."

Louisiana

Like Texas, Louisiana also experiences "a very high frequency" of extreme weather events, Smith says. "So you get hit over and over." For Louisiana, a place with historically low economic growth, "it's never really made whole," he says. "It feels like it's always playing catch-up."

Like Texas, Louisiana practices an all-hazards approach, and it includes business in its public-facing emergency planning information. "We were one of the first states to establish a business Emergency Operations Center," says Mike Steele, spokesperson for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

"It's a way for our business and industry partners to see what needs are coming in, to deal with that particular event." Businesses in the region, including big-box stores and industrial concerns, work with the state and with local emergency response to help Louisiana recover from extreme weather.

Safest states — for now

"The United States is pretty much loaded for so many [weather] extremes in so many places," the NOAA's Smith tells CNBC. But in terms of risk, all places aren't created equal when it comes to the types, severity and numbers of disasters they experience. Some places face hurricanes, while others face wildfires and others face extreme winter storms. Others are spared almost completely.

Yet while no state is completely safe, there are some that are not really prone to natural disasters of any kind. One of these is Utah, according to the NOAA.

"Utah is a pretty benign place as far as extreme weather and climate events," Smith says. Located inland, the state can experience drought and extreme winter storms that include blizzards and freezing rain, but nothing like what the other four states named here deal with.

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It's not the only place in the country, however. "Several northeastern states, such as New Hampshire, Vermont and even Maine, do not see as many of the damaging and costly extremes," says Smith.

What's also true, though, is that places that are relatively stable now are likely to experience change over the coming decades, he says: "The bull's-eye of risk is expanding." That means that areas that are currently relatively stable will see changes, he says. The Northeast and North Central are likely to be the most stable places weather-wise in coming decades, while more southern states will continue to be hit by disasters at a disproportionate rate.

Several northeastern states, such as New Hampshire, Vermont and even Maine, do not see as many of the damaging and costly extremes ... [but] the bull's-eye of risk is expanding.
Adam B. Smith
climate scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The bottom line given by the most recent National Climate Assessment is that "the assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid," and business and individuals alike need to start planning for their future.

Although different places need to prepare for different disasters, the University of Florida's Scheffers says that there's one thing every state can do: Maintain intact and healthy ecosystems. "Flood prevention, drought, hurricanes — you name it — can all be reduced in severity when people live in a landscape with intact and healthy ecosystems," he says.

Business can play a role in creating sustainable landscapes, he says, when it partners with scientists and governments. "The best way to deal with this highly uncertain future is to get businesses, scientists, managers and policymakers all in a room together and [problem-solve] together in a highly coordinated way."

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Key Points
  • This fall, Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II fighter jets will come to Vermont to be stationed at the Air National Guard Base at Burlington International Airport.
  • The jets are rumored to be nuclear-capable, and citizen groups, companies and environmental activists want the program removed from the state.
  • Bernie Sanders, the state's junior senator and a 2020 candidate for the presidency, was one of several officials who brought the program to the state.