Wildfires and drought in California, hurricanes and flooding in Florida and power outages in Texas have rendered all three states distinctly less livable in recent years.
People still flock to Florida and Texas, drawn by low taxes and warmth. (California, not so much.) But climate change is on everyone’s minds, and dire dispatches about fires and floods dominate the daily news cycle.
“The data actually shows that some of the fastest-growing cities are some of those that are at the greatest risk of disasters,” said Diane Vuković, disaster-preparedness expert at Primal Survivor, a popular “prepper” website.
A recent Census Bureau list of the 15 fastest-growing cities includes three each in Texas and Florida.
Yet, climate change has posited a new idea in American culture: Parts of the United States may not be habitable for much longer.
“I don’t know if I would say that there are places that are fundamentally unsafe, but I would say that there are places that are fundamentally unsustainable,” said Jessica Hellmann, a professor and executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
A recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change found Florida properties overvalued by $50 billion in “unpriced climate risk” of future flooding. California and Texas sit second and third on the list of states with overvalued housing.
During the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency quietly ranked U.S. counties on “climate resilience,” measuring their ability to cope with climate change.
The study found the nation’s most climate-resilient counties are “basically either in Maine or Alaska” — both bundle-up states — said Linda Shi, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell. “But that doesn’t mean everybody is suddenly moving to Maine or Alaska.”
Here, then, is a survey of five of the most and least disaster-prone states. The list draws on a 2022 WalletHub ranking of states by total and per-capita financial impact from natural disasters; a 2023 analysis of state-by-state disaster risks by Vuković on the Primal Survivor site; and a 2022 report on disaster-prone states from MoneyWise, the personal finance site. We also considered the Nature Climate Change study on overvalued properties and the EPA climate resilience report.
Five of the most disaster-prone states:
People walk through the flooded waters of Hurricane Harvey on Telephone Rd. in Houston on Aug. 27, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas B. Shea)
Hurricanes, fires, tornadoes and blizzards: Texans have endured just about every category of natural disaster imaginable, except earthquakes. Oh, wait, they’ve had earthquakes, too.
Texas witnessed 368 major disasters from 1953 through 2022, according to MoneyWise, the most of any state.
The recent standout is 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which had more than $125 billion in damage — most of it from catastrophic flooding in Texas. Harvey claimed the lives of 103 Texans.
Texas is tied for the most billion-dollar climate disasters since 1980 of any state, according to WalletHub, although the state is so populous that its rank drops to eighth when you consider the damage on a per-capita basis.
Hurricanes and flooding wreak regular havoc on Mississippi. WalletHub ranks it the nation’s most disaster-prone state.
Mississippi’s flood risk is legendary. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 stands as the most destructive river flood in the nation’s history, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands as it inundated more than 23,000 square miles.
Mississippi has endured 50 disaster declarations since 2000, according to Vuković’s analysis. They include Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Ida in 2021.
Vuković says FEMA has logged more than 1 million flood-damage claims in the state since 2000. Mississippi also ranks high in tornado risk, with 50 twisters a year.
With more than 217 major disasters since 1953, Oklahoma ranks third among disaster-prone states in the MoneyWise analysis. Vuković, too, ranks the state third for disaster risk. WalletHub ranks it sixth.
Oklahoma sits in Tornado Alley. A federal study tagged Pontotoc County, in southeastern Oklahoma, as the single likeliest spot for a tornado in the nation. The infamous Woodward tornado in 1947 killed at least 116 Oklahomans. A 2013 twister killed 24 and inflicted $2 billion in damage.
The state also ranks high in flood risk and endures both wildfires and ice storms, according to MoneyWise.
A California Dept. of Corrections fire crew cuts a containment line while fighting the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire on Aug. 21, 2020, in Bonny Doon, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Perhaps no state has witnessed so many high-profile disasters of late than California — a state that has tallied 285 disaster declarations since 2000.
California is famous for earthquakes, although Californians have eluded the proverbial Big One in recent years. Famous temblors include the Northridge quake of 1994, which killed 57 people and caused $35 billion in inflation-adjusted damage, and the Loma Prieta “World Series” quake of 1989, which killed 63.
Much disaster talk nowadays focuses on wildfires, drought and heat waves, all more frequent because of climate change.
Wildfires killed 103 people and caused $26 billion in damage in 2018 alone.
The bridge leading from Fort Myers to Pine Island, Fla., is seen heavily damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Fla., on Oct. 1, 2022. The damage prompted the Florida Legislature to meet for a special session on property insurance and property tax relief in the wake of Hurricane Ian. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
This fifth spot on our list is a toss-up. Washington State has seen more major disasters than Florida since 1953, according to MoneyWise, and WalletHub places eight states higher on its disaster ranking.
But Florida faces a singular set of future challenges, both for its vulnerability to hurricanes and its unique proclivity to flood.
Miami-Dade officials expect sea levels to rise 10 to 17 inches between 2000 and 2040. Miami Beach floods so regularly that a tourist could “plan a visit to coincide with an inundation,” a New Yorker writer observed.
The deadliest and costliest Florida hurricanes include Ian in 2022, which killed at least 160, and Andrew, the 1992 monster that killed 65.
Five of the least disaster-prone states:
With 50 to 70 inches of annual snowfall, Maine has its share of weather. But not disastrous weather.
WalletHub ranks Maine lowest among the states for overall impact from natural disasters. Only Alaska and Hawaii have had fewer billion-dollar disasters since 1980.
Did we mention snow? A storm in March 2018 dropped 21 inches on Bangor.
Rocio Franco shovels the snow from her driveway on March 4 in Bellow Falls, Windham County, Vt. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)
Vermont trails only Maine for fewest natural disasters since 2000, by Vucović’s count. Here, too, the big concern is snow. Vermont gets about as much snow as Maine.
But disaster declarations are growing more frequent in Vermont in recent years as climate change seeds heavier precipitation and heightened flood risk. Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 killed six and swamped properties and public water systems.
WalletHub ranks New Hampshire third on its list of least disaster-impacted states, behind Maine and Alaska. A government website shows major disasters at a rate of one or two a year, chiefly for severe storms and flooding.
Here, too, snow is a distinct downside. One epic nor’easter dumped 98 inches on parts of New Hampshire over a 100-hour span in 1969.
OK: Floridians seeking relief from climate change probably won’t be racing north to Alaska. But the state ranks second on the WalletHub list of states least impacted by disasters.
Alaska has sustained some of the most powerful earthquakes on Earth. A 1964 temblor with a 9.2 magnitude in Prince William Sound caused more than 100 deaths and ranks as one of the strongest quakes on record.
But the EPA survey identified Kodiak Island Borough as the single most climate-resilient county in the United States. With ice-cold average temperatures, Alaska is uniquely positioned for climate change.
Tiny Delaware ranks as one of the least disaster-prone states in both WalletHub’s and Vuković’s analyses, with only 10 major disaster declarations since 2000.
Delaware deals with its share of downgraded hurricanes, with rain and flooding a larger threat than damaging winds. Hurricane Ida, in 2021, trapped hundreds of people in floodwaters. But actual hurricane fatalities in Delaware are few.
And where would our experts go to escape natural disasters and the worst effects of climate change?
Hellmann, the Minnesotan, favors the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions, which boast a cool climate and ample water. “It’ll have extreme summer heat,” she said, “but not extreme-extreme.”
And Vuković? “I think I would want to live in Vermont,” she said. “If you can prepare for the blizzards, then you’re basically fine.”