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Riskiest Counties for Natural Disasters Are Not Always Where People Think

2021-01-05 06:00:39

Morgan Andersen spends her life in Los Angeles and knows natural disasters all too well. In college, an earthquake shook her house hard. Her grandfather has been hit by recent wildfires in neighboring Orange County.

“It's just that constant reminder, 'Oh yes, we live somewhere where there are natural disasters and they can strike at any time', said the 29-year-old marketing manager.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has calculated the risk for every province in America for 18 types of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, volcanoes and even tsunamis. And of more than 3,000 counties, Los Angeles County ranks highest in the National Risk Index.

New York and Philadelphia score much higher on tornado risk than Oklahoma and Kansas tornado alleys.

The way FEMA calculates the index highlights places that have long been known as dangerous places, such as Los Angeles, but some of the other marked places go against what most people would think. For example, eastern cities such as New York and Philadelphia score much higher on tornado risk than Oklahoma and Kansas tornado alleys.

And the county most at risk for coastal flooding is one in Washington state that is not oceanfront, even though the river is tidal.

Those seeming idiosyncrasies arise because the FEMA index scores how often disasters strike, how many people and how many properties are at risk, how vulnerable the population is socially, and how well the area is able to recover. And that results in a risk assessment for large cities with many poor people and expensive properties ill-prepared to be hit by disasters that only occur once per generation.

While the rankings may be "counterintuitive" seems, the degree of risk is not just how often a type of natural disaster strikes a place, but also how bad the toll would be, according to FEMA's Mike Grimm.

Take tornadoes. Two counties in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Hudson County, New Jersey, are FEMA's five most at risk counties for tornadoes. Oklahoma County, Oklahoma – with more than 120 tornadoes since 1950, including one that killed 36 people in 1999 – ranks 120th.

"They (the top five) are a low-frequency and potentially major impact event because there is a lot of property exposure in that area," said Susan Cutter, director of the University of South Carolina's Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute. whose work many of the FEMA calculations are based on. "That's why a small tornado can cause a big dollar loss."

In New York, people are much less aware of the risk and less prepared – and that's a problem, Grimm said. The day before he said that, New York had a tornado watch. Days later, the National Weather Service tweeted that in 2020 several cities, mostly along the East Coast, had more tornadoes than Wichita, Kansas.

New York and Philadelphia score much higher on tornado risk than Oklahoma and Kansas tornado alleys.

Overall, Oklahoma is twice as likely to get tornadoes as New York City, but the damage potential is much greater in New York as there are 20 times as many people and nearly 20 times the property value at risk, according to FEMA- officers.

"It's that risk perception that it won't happen to me," said Grimm. "Just because I haven't seen it in my life doesn't mean it won't happen."

That kind of denial is especially true with frequent and costly floods, he said, and is the reason that only 4% of the population has federal flood insurance, when about a third may need it.

Police officers lead traffic around a fallen tree that has been brought down by heavy rain and wind, Tuesday, August 4, 2020, in West New York, NJ. Tropical Storm Isaias spawned tornadoes and dumped rain during an inland march along the US East Coast, including New York. Jersey, after making landfall like a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina. (AP Photo / John Minchillo)

Disaster experts say people should think about the great disaster that happens a few times a lifetime at most, but is devastating when it strikes – Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the 2011 super outbreak of tornadoes, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or a pandemic.

"We are bad at taking seriously risks that rarely occur," said David Ropeik, a retired Harvard risk communications professor and author of "How Risky Is It, Really?" "We just don't fear them as much as we fear things that are more present in our consciousness, that are more common. That's practically disastrous in natural disasters."

Something like FEMA's new index "opens our eyes to the gap between what we feel and what is," Ropeik said.

FEMA's top 10 riskiest places, besides Los Angeles, are three counties in the New York City area – Bronx, New York County (Manhattan), and Kings County (Brooklyn) – along with Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas, St. Louis and Riverside and San Bernardino counties, California.

Loudoun County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., has the lowest risk of all counties. Three other Washington suburban counties are among the lowest risks for larger counties, along with Boston, Long Island, suburban Detroit and Pittsburgh.

By the same measurement, Loudoun County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., has the lowest risk of any county, according to FEMA. Three other Washington suburban counties are among the lowest risks for larger counties, along with suburban Boston, Long Island, suburban Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Some of FEMA's risk classifications by type of disaster seem obvious. Miami has the greatest risk of hurricanes, lightning and river flooding. Hawaii County tops volcano risk and Honolulu County for tsunamis, Dallas for hail, Philadelphia for heat waves and California's Riverside County for wildfires.

External risk expert Himanshu Grover of the University of Washington called FEMA's effort "a good tool, a good start," but one with flaws, such as final scores that seem to downplay the frequency of disasters.

Risks are changing due to climate change and this index does not appear to address that, Ropeik said. FEMA officials said climate change is showing in flood calculations and likely to be included in future updates.

This new tool, based on calculations by 80 experts over six years, is about 'educating homeowners and tenants and communities to be more resilient', said FEMA's Grimm, adding that people are not going or out because of the risk. may move a province. review.

The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Science Education Department of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Top photo: Los Angeles City Hall can be seen in downtown Los Angeles. According to the U.S. Geological Survey struck a magnitude 4.6 earthquake in Southern California late on Friday evening, September 18, 2020. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. (AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes)

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