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New FEMA tool shows risk of weather disasters in different parts of US

The National Risk Index is based on calculations by 80 experts over six years.

Many people living across the United States are well aware of the risk of the weather disasters that are most likely to strike their area. Los Angeles resident Morgan Anderson has experienced earthquakes and, more recently, wildfires.

"It's just that constant reminder, ‘Oh yeah, we live somewhere where there's natural disasters and they can strike at any time,'" the 29-year-old recently told the Associated Press.

For some, like Anderson, the risk is obvious. In 2020, California experienced its worst fire season on record in terms of area burned, as well as its largest single wildfire on record. But, a new online tool to help illustrate communities most at risk for natural disasters reveals the riskiest counties are not always where people think.

The National Risk Index, put together by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is based on calculations by 80 experts over six years and reveals the risks for each county in the United States for 18 natural hazards including earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, volcanoes, tsunamis and even winter weather. The interactive tool went live in November.

Click here to explore the National Risk Index.

Well-known danger spots like Los Angeles and wildfires, as well as Miami and hurricanes, are highlighted, but the index features many surprises. For example, Philadelphia and New York City rank higher on the index for tornadoes than places in Kansas and Oklahoma, which are in the heart of Tornado Alley.

It may seem counterintuitive but the rankings aren't just based on how often a disaster strikes a place, but how big of a toll a particular disaster could take on a community, FEMA's Mike Grimm told the AP. That means that even though places in Oklahoma are twice as likely as New York City to be hit by tornadoes, the damage potential is much higher in New York because there are 20 times the people and nearly 20 times the property value at risk.

"They are a low frequency, potentially high-consequence event because there's a lot of property exposure in that area. Therefore, a small tornado can create a large dollar loss." University of South Carolina Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute Director Susan Cutter said. It was her work on which FEMA based much of its risk calculations.

Philadelphia resident and mother of three, Martina Peterson, 38, told AccuWeather she's shocked that her hometown is at high risk for tornadoes. "I had no idea," she said. "But it's funny because I've dreamed about a tornado in Philadelphia my whole life." She said the information will absolutely influence what she'll teach her kids about preparations for various emergencies.

Along with Philadelphia, two New York City counties as well as St. Louis County and Hudson County in New Jersey are FEMA's top five riskiest counties for tornadoes while Oklahoma County ranks 120th.

With a record number of billion-dollar disasters striking the United States in 2020, according to NOAA, the National Risk Index is certainly timely. In addition to the record-breaking wildfire season, the Atlantic Ocean experienced its most active hurricane season on record with 30 named storms as the season closed in November.

Also in 2020, a powerful derecho causing significant damage and widespread power outages over a nearly 800-mile stretch of the U.S. in 14 hours and became the most costly thunderstorm in U.S. history, causing billions in damages.

With so many people unaware of the natural disasters that could cause devastation in their region, Grimm says they're less prepared. In New York, for example, tornadoes don't factor into people's emergency plans very often but the risk is real. The National Weather Service recently tweeted that in 2020 several cities, mostly along the East Coast, each of which had more tornadoes touch down last year than Wichita, Kansas, which had zero tornadoes.

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

However, experts say it's so important for homebuyers to research the natural hazard risks in any area they're considering moving or where they currently live. It's not just about damage to your home or neighborhood. Your entire life and means of making a living can be affected.

In his extensive research on natural hazards, Dr. Frank Nothaft found that "the ramifications of a natural disaster go far beyond the physical damage they inflict on homes. They also wreak havoc on the finances of the local residents." Disasters destroy homes and displace residents, which affects the housing market.

Even if your home survives a disaster intact, your life can be irrevocably changed. "Commercial buildings that supply jobs to the local community can also get burned down, torn apart or washed away. Even undamaged companies may suffer a sharp drop in business. Residents working in a disaster-damaged area will often find themselves without the income they were expecting to make their bill payments," Nothaft reports.

This interactive tool is about "educating homeowners and renters and communities to be more resilient," Grimm told the AP.

The 18 natural hazards included in the index are avalanches, coastal flooding, cold wave (a cooling of air), drought, earthquake, hail, heat wave, hurricane, ice storm, landslide, lightning, river flooding, strong wind, tornado, tsunami, volcanic activity, wildfire and winter weather.

If you'd like to check your county, simply click a location on the interactive map and determine the risk of the location. For example, click on Miami and you'll see the risk for a hurricane is very high. While the risk of hurricanes is not applicable in Los Angeles County, several other hazards are very high, including wildfires, earthquakes and river flooding.

The top 10 counties listed at "very high risk" on the index include:

1. Los Angeles County, California; Score: 100. At very high risk for earthquakes, riverine flooding and wildfires. Because its population of 10 million people, any natural hazard can be deadly and costly.

2. Bronx County, New York; Score: 85.63

3. New York County, New York; Score: 69.91. Very high risk of heat wave, ice storm, strong wind, winter weather and tornadoes. Its large population combined with a very high expected annual loss gives it a relatively low community resilience score.

4. Miami-Dade County, Florida; Score: 58.25. Very high risk for hurricanes, riverine flooding, cold waves and lightning.

5. Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania; Score: 57.72 Most at risk for heat waves, ice storms, lightning, river 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. Very high risk for hail, lightning and riverine flooding.

10. St. Louis County, Missouri; Score: 52.35. The county is at very high risk of heat waves, ice storms, strong winds, tornadoes and winter weather.

A look at Centre County, Pennsylvania, where AccuWeather headquarters is located, reveals the region scores low on every hazard on the list. The county with the lowest risk in the country is Loudoun County in Virginia. The suburb of Washington, D.C., had the lowest disaster score relative to any other county, according to the index.