Consideration LA: Feds are calculating the riskiest and most secure locations within the US Nationwide / World Information

Morgan Andersen lives her life in Los Angeles and knows natural disasters all too well. An earthquake shook her home hard at college. Her grandfather was hit by the recent forest fires in neighboring Orange County.

“It’s just the 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 director.

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

According to the Index, Cape Ann and the rest of Essex County are at relatively low risk of disaster. When one hits, the index estimates that losses are relatively moderate, social vulnerability is relatively low, and community resilience is relatively high.

The way FEMA calculates the Index Spotlight locations that have long been known as Danger Points, like Los Angeles but some other highlighted locations are contrary to what most people would think. For example, eastern cities like New York and Philadelphia have a far higher risk of tornadoes than tornado alleys in Oklahoma and Kansas.

And the county with the greatest risk of flooding on the coast is one in Washington State that is not on the ocean, even though the river has tides.

These apparent oddities arise because the FEMA Index rates how often disasters occur, how many people and how much property are at risk, how vulnerable the population is socially, and how well the area can recover. This results in a high risk score for large cities with lots of poor people and expensive real estate that are ill-prepared to be hit by one-off disasters.

While the rankings seem “not intuitive”, the risk is not just how often some kind of natural disaster hits a location, but also how high the toll would be, according to FEMA’s Mike Grimm.

Tornadoes, floods

Take tornadoes. Two counties in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Hudson Counties, New Jersey, are FEMA’s five riskiest 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 5) are a low-frequency, potentially high-impact event because of the high exposure to real estate in that area,” said Susan Cutter, director of the University of South Carolina Institute for Hazard and Vulnerability Studies, who does much of the work which makes up FEMA calculations are based on. “So a small tornado can cause a huge loss of dollars.”

In New York, people are far less aware and less prepared of the risk – and that’s a problem, Grimm said. The day before, New York had a tornado clock. Days later, the National Weather Service tweeted that in 2020 several cities, mostly along the east coast, had more tornadoes than Wichita, Kansas.

In general, Oklahoma is twice as likely to get tornadoes as it is in New York City, but the potential for damage in New York is much higher with 20 times more people and nearly 20 times as many homes at risk, according to FEMA- Officer.

“It is this perception of risk that it will not happen to me,” said Grimm. “Just because I haven’t seen it in my life doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

This type of denial is especially true for frequent and costly floods and is the reason why only 4% of the population have government flood insurance when around a third need it.

Most risky places

Disaster experts say people need to think about the great catastrophe that happens at most a few times in their lives but is devastating when it does – Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the 2011 super-tornado outbreak, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or a pandemic.

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

Something like FEMA’s new index “opens our eyes to the gaps between what we feel and what is,” said Ropeik.

In addition to Los Angeles, FEMA’s ten riskiest locations are three counties in the New York City region – Bronx, New York County (Manhattan), and Kings County (Brooklyn) – as well as Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas, St. Louis and Riverside, and San Bernardino counties in California.

According to the same measurement, Loudoun County, a suburb of Washington, DC, has the lowest risk of all counties, according to FEMA. Three other suburbs in Washington are among the least at risk of major boroughs, along with the suburbs of Boston, Long Island, Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Some of FEMA’s risk assessments by disaster type seem obvious. Miami is at the highest risk for hurricanes, lightning, and river floods. Hawaii County is a leader in volcanic risk and Honolulu County is a leader in tsunamis, Dallas is a hailstorm, Philadelphia is a heatwave, and Riverside County is a wildfire.

University of Washington external risk expert Himanshu Grover described FEMA’s efforts as “a good tool, off to a good start,” but one with flaws such as bottom line results that seem to downplay the frequency of disasters.

Risks are changing due to climate change, and that index doesn’t seem to take that into account, Ropeik said. FEMA officials said climate change is showing up in flood calculations and is likely to be included in future updates.

This new tool, based on calculations by 80 experts over a six-year period, is about “educating homeowners, renters and communities to be more resilient,” said Grimm of FEMA, adding that people because of the risk should not pull into or out of a county evaluation.


Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears


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

Comments are closed.