When It Comes to Natural Disasters, FEMA Says L.A. County Is the Riskiest Place in the U.S.

The federal agency’s National Risk Index ranks more than 3,000 counties—and L.A. is on top

An ever-lengthening wildfire season and the constant threat of “the Big One” can certainly make living in Los Angeles feel like a Darwinian struggle to survive, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration reports that mother nature is more likely to wreck your day here than in any other county in the country—and that’s not even taking the pandemic into account.

FEMA’s new National Risk Index tool ranked more than 3,000 counties on risk associated with 18 types of natural disasters, including wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and tsunamis, and L.A. came out on top, the Associated Press reports.

It may not be surprising that L.A., with all its elemental challenges, snagged first place honors, but the Bronx and New York County came in second and third place, with Brooklyn (Kings County) taking the sixth spot. This is because the index—based on work by more than 80 experts over six years—focuses not only on places where natural events are most or least likely to occur, but also on which areas are likely to sustain the most damage. The index also takes into account how vulnerable the population is, as well as the area’s ability to recover.

By those calculations, big cities where there’s a lot of pricey real estate and a lot of people—and where a lot of those people are poor—are at the highest risk of suffering historic damage from once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes.

“[The top five most dangerous counties] are a low frequency, potentially high-consequence event because there’s a lot of property exposure in that area,” said University of South Carolina Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute Director Susan Cutter tells AP. “Therefore, a small tornado can create a large dollar loss.”

In fact, while two NYC counties, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and New Jersey’s Hudson County are the top five most at-risk spots for tornados, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, ranked just 120th, despite being hit by more than 120 tornados since 1950.

As FEMA officials point out, Oklahoma is twice as likely as New York City to get hit with a tornado (though NYC did get put under a tornado watch just last month), but the city has 20 times more people and almost 20 times more property value at risk.

“It’s that risk perception that it won’t happen to me,” FEMA’s Mike Grimm says. “Just because I haven’t seen it in my lifetime doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

David Ropeik, a retired risk communications lecturer at Harvard and the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, warns that the less common a natural event is, the more dangerous it can be.

“We simply don’t fear them as much as we fear things that are more present in our consciousness, more common,” he says. “That’s practically disastrous with natural disasters.”

Some of FEMA’s findings are easier to compute. For instance, stay away from Riverside County if you’re worried about wildfires, avoid Miami if you want to stay out of the path of hurricanes, and steer clear of Hawaii County if surviving a volcano eruption isn’t on your bucket list.

If you want to play it safe, however, the Risk Index says the top three places for you are Loudon County, Virginia; Chattahoochee County, Georgia; and the City and Borough of Wrangell, Alaska.

For those opting to remain in civilization, the creators of the index stress that no one should move to or away from any county based on its risk ratings, and that it is meant to be a tool to provide data which “can help in developing a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan to help increase community resilience, which is a prerequisite requirement for applying for FEMA’s mitigation grants.”

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