Thanks to global warming, climate disasters are set to impact pretty much every corner of the world, but of course, some places are getting hit first and worst. A new federal report shows which parts of the U.S. are most in danger.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s latest National Risk Index, released over the weekend, illustrates every U.S. counties’ vulnerability to 18 types of natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. It found that of the nation’s 3,000 counties, Los Angeles County is facing the most risk.
If you follow climate news at all, that should come as no surprise. The Los Angeles area has suffered massively due to wildfires in recent years. But other rankings are a bit less obvious. For instance, several east coast urban areas, including New York City’s Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn boroughs, as well as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, all ranked in the index’s top 10 most vulnerable places. And New York City counties, Philadelphia, Missouri’s St. Louis County, and New Jersey’s Hudson County ranked as at the highest risk of tornadoes, even though areas in Kansas and Oklahoma see tornadoes much more often.
That’s because the study calculates not only the likelihood that a disaster will hit, but also how bad the effects of disaster would be in any given county. Specifically, in addition to quantifying risk based on how often disasters land, the study also considers also each area’s population and property value, how socially and economically vulnerable residents are, and what resources are available to officials to turn the county back around. That means densely populated regions that are home to high levels of people experiencing poverty and expensive, difficult-to-repair properties were ranked with high levels of risk.
The report makes it clear that many of us are more vulnerable to climate disasters than we think. “It’s that risk perception that it won’t happen to me,“ FEMA official Mike Grim told the Associated Press. “Just because I haven’t seen it in my lifetime doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
For instance, he said, only 4% of the population has federal flood insurance, but the report shows up to a third of Americans might need it.
Similarly, Oklahoma is twice as likely to see a tornado as the state of New York, but the state has still seen more than 400 tornadoes since the 1950s. Plus, since New York is much more densely populated, a smaller tornado could do more damage. Despite this, public awareness of tornado risk in urban East Coast centers is low.
The study highlights the urgency to get a handle on obvious and less-obvious climate risks all across the country, implementing plans to adapt to our changing conditions and mitigate disasters’ impacts. This could include spreading awareness of risks, creating evacuation plans, improving insurance coverage for natural disasters, and phasing out of development in highly vulnerable areas.
Of course, the report also shows how urgently officials must phase-out of global warming activities, especially fossil fuel production. The more we heat up the planet, the more vulnerable to these risks we’ll all be.