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FEMA Tool Calculates Risk for Every County in the Nation; Los Angeles Is at the Top

Published in 7 January, 2021

At a Glance

  • FEMA rolled out the National Risk Index at the end of last year.

  • It puts three New York City-area counties at greater risk of tornadoes than Oklahoma County.

At first glance, the list of the 10 riskiest places for natural disasters in the U.S. seems counterintuitive.

Los Angeles County, with its risk of wildfires, droughts, heat waves and earthquakes, seems a logical choice to be high on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Risk Index.

Others near the top may leave you scratching your head.

For example, the New York City area, which has four counties in the top 11 — Bronx, New York, Kings and Queens — isn’t exactly known for being hit by hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.

Those counties rank high because FEMA’s tool looks beyond the risk factors from 18 natural hazards. It reviews a community’s expected annual loss from natural hazards based on how many people and how much property could be affected. It also examines how vulnerable residents are and a community’s ability to recover from a disaster.

That’s why New York County, home to Manhattan, is considered at much greater risk from tornadoes than Oklahoma County, Oklahoma. Of course, Oklahoma County has seen many more tornadoes than Manhattan. But, according to the index, the expected annual loss from a tornado in New York County is $219 million while the annual loss from a tornado in Oklahoma County is expected to be $5.1 million.

“It’s that risk perception that it won’t happen to me,” Mike Grimm, who led FEMA’s mitigation and resilience programs, told the Associated Press. “Just because I haven’t seen it in my lifetime doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

The National Risk Index, which was rolled out at the end of last year, has details for the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. and calculates each county’s risk for hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, both coastal and riverine. It includes droughts, earthquakes, heat waves and cold waves, landslides, lightning, wildfires, tsunamis and volcanoes. It also includes avalanches, hail, ice storms, strong wind and winter weather.

“The index is intended to help users better understand the natural hazard risk of their respective areas or communities,” FEMA explains. “With improved understanding of natural hazard risk, communities can take action to reduce it.”

Eleven counties are listed at “very high” risk on the index.

1. Los Angeles County, California; Score: 100. Los Angeles County’s expected annual loss is very high, and its social vulnerability is relatively high while its community resilience is relatively low. Because of its population of nearly 10 million people and property value of more than $950 billion, any natural hazard can be costly. The county is at relatively high risk for drought, heat waves, ice storms, lightning, strong wind and tornadoes. It is at very high risk for earthquakes, riverine flooding and wildfires.

2. Bronx County, New York; Score: 85.63

3. New York County, New York; Score: 69.91

4. Miami-Dade County, Florida; Score: 58.25. The county at the tip of Florida is most at risk for hurricanes, cold waves, lightning, and riverine flooding.

5. Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania; Score: 57.72. The county surrounding the City of Brotherly Love is at very high risk for heat waves, ice storms, lightning, riverine flooding, strong winds, tornadoes and winter weather.

6. Kings County, New York; Score: 56.52

7. Riverside County, California; Score: 55.80

8. San Bernardino County, California; Score: 52.56

9. Dallas County, Texas; Score: 52.45. Among the hazards Dallas is at very high risk of are hail, lightning and riverine flooding.

10. St. Louis County, Missouri; Score: 52.35. The county along the Mississippi River is at very high risk of heat waves, ice storms, strong winds, tornadoes and winter weather. It also is at relatively high risk of earthquakes and cold waves.

11. Queens County, New York; Score: 49.97

The county with the lowest risk in the country is Loudoun County in Virginia. The suburb of Washington D.C. has a score of 0.

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