Human beings are self-absorbed creatures, so the response to Hurricane Katrina has naturally included some hand-wringing over the question: “Could this happen to my hometown?” Depending on the worrywart’s location, the theoretical catastrophe could be a flash flood, a wildfire, or an earthquake rather than a hurricane; no corner of the United States is immune to lethal natural disasters.
Still, some corners are safer than others. If an American wants to minimize his chances of dying at Mother Nature’s hands, where should he set up house? Slate crunched the numbers—and did some educated guesswork—to find the U.S. city where the odds of perishing in a natural disaster are closest to nil.
We started by taking a look at every presidential disaster declaration from 1965 through 2004. As this color-coded map reveals, the Eastern half of the nation has had the most officially declared disasters, although North Dakota, Washington, and California have endured more than their share of woe. Going by presidential decrees alone, then, Western states such as Nevada or Wyoming appear safest.
But the data are skewed by the fact that disasters are more likely to be declared in populated areas. As this FEMA primer makes clear, disasters are declared in order to make funds available to people and businesses affected by a catastrophe. So, a severe storm in the Milwaukee suburbs is a lot likelier to be declared a federal disaster than a severe storm in an unpopulated expanse of southwestern Wyoming.
The declared disasters list was useful, however, in helping to eliminate the obvious noncontenders. Like, say, California. The state’s massive population gives it a low per-capita fatality rate for natural disasters, but no one would consider it a safe haven from nature’s worst: It’s susceptible to earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, torrential rains, rip currents, and even volcanoes. Unsurprisingly, then, California has had more declared disasters than any other state but Texas, which is frequently hammered by tornadoes, thunderstorms, and floods.
For simplicity’s sake—Slatestill lacks a supercomputer to handle massive number-crunching assignments—we automatically eliminated the 30 states with the most declared disasters. Most were no-brainers, such as the hurricane-prone states of the Gulf Coast and the heartland states that lie in Tornado Alley. Sparsely populated North Dakota has regular problems with severe flooding, as do Virginia, Tennessee, and New York. (Flooding, tornadoes, and tropical storms/hurricanes have been the most prolific killers in recent years, although heat waves often take significant tolls.) Illinois and Pennsylvania didn’t make the grade because their cities can get lethally hot. Also disqualified were some notably frigid members of the union, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota; blizzards and icy conditions are frequently deadly, especially for motorists. And seemingly placid West Virginia? It has some issues with landslides, particularly in the counties that border Ohio.
That left 20 states, two of which we knocked out immediately on common-sense grounds: Hawaii, since islands are inherently at the ocean’s mercy (plus there’s a slew of volcanoes), and Alaska, where severe winter storms are the norm. For the remaining 18 states, then, we looked at year-by-year fatalities resulting from severe weather, dating back to 1995, as recorded by the National Weather Service. The NWS statistics cover 27 different types of weather events, including such relative rarities as deaths due to volcanic ash, fog, dust devils, and “miscellaneous.” (Since California had been eliminated at this stage, we ignored earthquake fatalities, which the NWS does not track.) We then used the total number of fatalities from each state to arrive at a deaths-per-thousand figure, based on population numbers taken from the 2000 Census.
Of the 18 states, only three had a fatality rate lower than 0.01 per thousand for the last decade: Connecticut (0.00587 per thousand), Massachusetts (0.00299), and Rhode Island (0.00286). These figures are somewhat surprising, given that all three of these New England states have ample coastlines and are thus susceptible to fierce storms. But they are also more immune to hurricanes than their southerly counterparts, virtually free of tornadoes, and blessed with relatively cool summers and winters that, although cold, aren’t quite North Dakota cold. They’re also affluent—all three boast family median incomes above the national average—and, as Hurricane Katrina reminded us, socioeconomics matter when it comes to preserving life during natural disasters.
For the three finalists, we looked at the county-by-county breakdowns of presidential-disaster declarations since 1995. Rhode Island only had one, during the Blizzard of ‘96. Connecticut was hit by that storm, too, as well as by Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999, which affected Litchfield, Hartford, and Fairfield counties. Massachusetts, meanwhile, had five major declared disasters, mostly associated with heavy rains and flooding in its seven easternmost counties.
Based solely on the numbers, then, Rhode Island would seem to be the winner. But the tiny state’s cities are clustered around bays and rivers, which means a major hurricane could cause flooding. During the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, for example, a violent storm surge hit Providence.
Eastern Massachusetts is dicey because its long coastline is exposed to the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. The rural west has proven statistically safer, but winter in the Berkshires can be snowy and harsh.
That leaves Connecticut, whose coastline faces the Long Island Sound rather than the open ocean. Still, living near the water is not recommended for the truly tense; a safer bet is somewhere inland, away from rivers and lakes, but not too deep in the boonies. The state’s winters aren’t tropical, but they tend to be not quite as snowbound as those in western Massachusetts.
After much debate, then, we settled on Slate’s “America’s Best Place to Avoid Death Due to Natural Disaster”: the area in and around Storrs, Conn., home to the University of Connecticut. It lies in Tolland County, which was not part of the 1999 federal disaster declaration for Tropical Storm Floyd. It’s a safe 50 miles from the sound and not close to any rivers. It also has relatively easy access to a major city (Hartford) in the event an evacuation or hospitalization becomes necessary.*
This conclusion is by no means scientific, nor can safety ever be completely guaranteed; as moviegoers and Rick Moody fans are already aware, Connecticut does have its share of dangerous ice storms. And we’re open to suggestions about other candidates for the title. If you want to make a case for your hometown, please drop us a line. In the meantime, the parents of UConn students can sleep a little easier tonight.
(E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
*Correction, September 15, 2005: This piece originally asserted that the University of Connecticut Health Center is in Storrs, Conn. It’s actually in Farmington.