Los Angeles Rated Most Susceptible to Natural Disasters, According to FEMA Data

The report explains how damaging hypothetical, extreme weather scenarios would be and does not represent how frequently devastation actually occurs

A view of the California fires taken from the International Space Station
Los Angeles County is the most at risk for climate-related disasters out of 3,000 counties analyzed in the United States. NASA Johnson via Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

California has been ravaged by wildfires and droughts in recent years, with over 500,000 acres scorched in the 2020 fire season alone. New data suggests Los Angeles County is the most at risk for climate-related disasters out of 3,000 counties analyzed in the United States, according to a federal risk assessment released in last fall.

The National Risk Index is an online tool created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that rates counties by their likelihood of facing 18 different natural disasters and how devastating the aftermath would be in each location, reports Dharna Noor for Gizmodo. Each county’s rating is primarily ranked by how much economic damage would occur if a natural disaster were to strike and does not represent the how frequently residents encounter any given disaster, reports NBC Los Angeles.

A county’s socioeconomic status and the ability to recover from a disaster increases its risk value, so population-dense cities like New York and Philadelphia have high scores. Cities like these are less prepared for a natural disaster and contain expensive infrastructure. Urban areas are also home to more citizens living in poverty who don’t have the resources to recover from the devastation quickly.

University of Washington risk expert Himanshu Grover tells the Associated Presss Seth Borenstein that the FEMA index is “a good tool, a good start,” but points out that some rankings seem to downplay how regularly occurring or seasonal disasters affect the communities that face them most.

While Los Angeles county has high risk ratings for heat, drought and wildfire, some counties have ratings that don’t make as much sense. For example, if urban counties in Pennsylvania, New York, or New Jersey were to face a tornado, recovery from the destruction would be more challenging than in rural counties in south-central states that make up “tornado alley,” AP News reports. But counties in these three East Coast states rank as riskiest for tornadoes while Oklahoma counties—where tornadoes happen regularly—is ranked 120th on the list.

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

David Ropeik, a retired Harvard risk communications lecturer and author, told AP News that risks are always shifting because of climate change, and the National Risk Assessment does not account for this data either.

FEMA’s Grimm states that the risk rankings are based on calculations from 80 experts over the past six years with the goal of empowering communities to be more resilient. They can help update emergency operations, educate homeowners, and inform how long it would take a community to recover from even an unlikely disaster.