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By Paul Reynolds
January 13, 2021
Big Cities Top Rural Areas for Disaster Impact
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Thinking of natural disasters, many of us conjure up images of rural wilderness and coastlines. But a new Federal Emergency Management Agency analysis shows the places that bear the biggest brunt — including in economic and social damage — from disasters are some of the nation’s biggest urban areas.

The FEMA National Risk Index considers the impact in every U.S. county — on people, property, and the community — of 18 types of disasters, from floods, wildfires, and earthquakes through hurricanes and tornadoes to landslides, lightning, and winter weather.

Here’s a rundown of the places where natural events have the greatest impact and why, along with a look at what the weather risks where you live may mean for your insurance.

Urban counties top the list

The five U.S. counties with the highest risk index scores are all predominantly urban: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, the Bronx in New York City, and Riverside, in Southern California.

The high impact of natural disasters in most of these places is largely rooted in the value of their property. Expected annual losses from property destruction and damage rank very high (to a value of $1.4 billion in Los Angeles) in all but one of these counties. As the exception among the five, the Bronx — the poorest county in New York State — rates only relatively high for losses.

The Bronx, though, is top-ranked on the two other key considerations FEMA uses to assess disaster impact. The county’s comparatively disadvantaged population is more likely than most to suffer such setbacks as losing a job or a home during a disaster, yielding a high social vulnerability score. And FEMA ranks the Bronx’s community infrastructure as less adept than most counties at preparing for disasters and in taking the needed steps to recover from them.

The next two counties on the list, Miami-Dade and Philadelphia, also suffer very high annual losses and have vulnerable populations. But FEMA finds them to be better than most at getting ready for and digging out of disasters. And Los Angeles and Riverside, CA score better still on those tasks, with the least vulnerable community infrastructure of all counties on this shortlist.

No surprise that earthquakes are key threats for Los Angeles, along with wildfires, which are also a leading disruption in Riverside County. Flooding and hurricanes are leading disasters for Miami-Dade, of course. But the northeastern counties, too, are at high risk from floods and “wind events” including tornadoes, and from snow and ice storms.

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America’s Worst Counties for Natural Disasters

Here, listed from worst to best, are the five counties deemed to be the riskiest and most damaging places (including economic and social impact) in the country for floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other adverse weather events.

County Annual Loss Social Vulnerability Community Vulnerability
Los Angeles, Calif. Very High Relatively High Relatively Low
Bronx, N.Y. Relatively High Very High Very High
Miami-Dade, Fla. Very High Very High Relatively Moderate
Philadelphia, Pa. Very High Very High Relatively Moderate
Riverside, Calif. Very High Relatively Moderate Relatively Low
SOURCE: Data is adapted from that used in the FEMA National Risk Index for the five worst counties in the country for natural disasters — including flooding, heat waves, hurricanes, ice storms and other winter weather, tornadoes, and wildfires. Annual Loss reflects the people, property, and agricultural value exposed to natural disasters that occur in the county along with how often these events happen and what proportion of property, income, and agricultural value are lost in the typical event. Social Vulnerability reflects the relative risk to the population of the adverse effects of disasters, from death and injury to loss of jobs and shelter. Community Vulnerability is the relative preparedness of the county for natural disasters, and its ability to recover from events.

At the other end of FEMA’s ranking is Loudoun County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., which scores lowest for risk. Three other Washington suburban counties are also low-ranked, at least as bigger counties ago, along with counties in suburban Boston and Detroit, Long Island, and Pittsburgh.

Many homeowners lack flood insurance

In the places FEMA deems riskiest, disaster doesn’t strike more often, necessarily. But when it does, high property values and economic activity mean the impact can be especially devastating. And places where catastrophes are infrequent are often less adept at preparing for the worst, according to risk expert David Ropeik, author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”

“We’re not good at accurately assessing risks that may have huge consequences but which don’t happen very often.” Ropeik wrote in an email. “That’s precisely the value of this new tool, making the consequences of the rare disaster more apparent.”

You can access details about the disaster threats where you live through FEMA’s interactive index map. To industry spokesperson Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications at the Insurance Information Institute, the FEMA tool can help people assess “the wrath of Mother Nature” as part of a recommended annual insurance review to identify and modify gaps in their coverage.

Obviously, a greater risk usually corresponds to higher premiums. But it’s usually money well spent, Friedlander wrote in an email. He points to the need to “fill the largest gap in coverage among homeowners: a lack of flood insurance.” Some 90% of natural disasters involve flooding, according to the National Flood Insurance Program, and yet a recent industry survey found that only 15% of American homeowners had a flood insurance policy.

Not only those who live along coasts should be concerned, Friedlander says. “Widespread flood damage can occur well inland, as we saw during the 2020 hurricane season. Yet the take-up rate for flood insurance is virtually nil outside of areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.” Further, the FEMA analysis showed river flooding to be a very high risk in counties including Philadelphia.

Friedlander also urges homeowners to press state and local officials on efforts to strengthen preparation and recovery efforts. “We are seeing more states, counties and cities establish resiliency departments, which is a good first step,” he says of these offices, which develop plans and coordinate emergency resources for disasters.

While these agencies are are not alone a guarantee that disasters won’t be highly disruptive — since some cities FEMA ranked as very risky have them — Friedlander says “community leaders play a critical role in helping homeowners and small business owners manage their exposure to severe weather and natural disasters and make properties more resilient to catastrophes.” And that, in turn, could be good for consumers’ wallets, he adds. “In the long-term, resiliency efforts that mitigate property losses could help control rising premiums in high-risk areas.”

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