In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, some Americans — particularly Gulf Coast residents — may be wondering whether there are places in the U.S. that are safe from such natural disasters.
The short answer? No. The Midwest may not be vulnerable to hurricanes, but twisters drop in regularly. Major earthquakes don't tend to strike New England, but strong winds can peel the roof off a northeastern house and snowstorms can shut down cities.
"Every location in the country is exposed to one disaster or another," says Wendy Rose, spokeswoman for the Institute for Business & Home Safety, a Tampa, Fla.-based nonprofit insurance industry group that aims to reduce losses from natural catastrophes.
Still, some places are less susceptible than others to natural hazards. To get an idea where they might be, we partnered with Sperling's Best Places, a data collection company based in Portland, Ore. Sperling's has compiled weather and disaster data for 331 metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S., and we used the information to discern the safest — and least safe — areas in which to live.
At the top of our list was Honolulu, Hawaii, which lives up to its reputation as a paradise. It is not only blessed with year-round beautiful weather and long stretches of beach; Hawaii is also not prone to tornadoes, wind, hail or extreme weather.
"We are fortunate that the way things have happened, we are pretty safe," says Ray Lovell, spokesman for Hawaii State Civil Defense. "Knock on wood."
Between 1972 and 2000, Hawaii had a total of 12 major disasters declared, according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration. That’s relatively low, especially compared to states like Texas, where 51 major disasters were declared in the same period, or California, which had 45.
Hawaii can get hurricanes, but the last major one was in September 1992 and its damage was localized, with little loss of life, Lovell says. The few brush fires this year didn’t burn any or injure any people. Their effect was "just the aggravation of having to close some roads and use some of the National Guard and other military to drop water," he explains.
Unlike many places, Hawaii can fall victim to tsunamis. But the last death from a giant wave happened in the 1970s, he says, when a few campers were drowned on a coastline. And though there is an active volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, it's not a particular threat right now.
"We're really blessed," says Lovell.
Other relatively safe places included Boise, Idaho; Santa Fe, N.M.; and three cities each in Oregon and Washington. But despite the lower incidence of frequent natural disasters in the Pacific Northwest, people who live there know that their area is far from secure.
The region is rife with potential natural hazards, says Rob Harper, spokesman for the Emergency Management Division of the state of Washington's Military Department. Among them are the tsunamis, earthquakes and volcano activities. Mud flows could come sliding down Mt. Rainer. A fault that lies 300 miles of the coast could create a huge swell of water.
"In that scenario, they have about 15 to 20 minutes to evacuate," Harper says. "And we can't forget Mount St. Helens as a volcano threat.”
Grim scenarios indeed. Then again, the last tsunami recorded was in 1700, Harper says. The last major mud flows happened thousands of years ago, he adds. In contrast, Florida experienced four major hurricanes back-to-back in the summer of 2004 alone.
Such dramatic and damaging weather events are a major reason why the bottom of our list — the least safe places to live — is dominated by coastal and southern cities. Monroe, La., was ranked the least safe on our list, with frequent wind and hail. And, according to scientists, increased global warming will only lead to more hurricanes per year, resulting in greater loss of life and property. Dallas has lots of wind and hail and is prone to some tornadoes. (In fact, Texas has the highest homeowners insurance rates in the U.S.) Jackson, Miss., gets hit by twisters and West Palm Beach-Boca Radon, Fla. gets smacked regularly with hurricanes.
Sperling’s Best Places collected climate, hail, tornado and wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; earthquake data from the U.S. Geological Survey; hurricane data from the International Hurricane Research Center; and compiled brush fire information independently. It then indexed all those numbers to show a metro area’s relative tendency to experience disasters or extreme weather (abundant rain or snowfall or days that are below freezing or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit). The numbers shown for natural disasters are out of 100 — the higher the number, the more common such events are. The lower the number, the less common. Sperling's did not include rare events such as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
We then added up the numbers to determine how relatively safe each place is. We didn't give any one type of disaster more weight than another — although tornadoes and earthquakes can result in extensive damage, so can hail and rain. In fact, water has the potential to be the most destructive force of all.
"The most potentially damaging natural disaster is flooding," says Caroline Gorman, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry research group based in New York City. "That's why the private insurance market doesn't even try to sell it. It happens in every state, it happens all the time. There are so many different ways for water to do damage."
Live in an unsafe place and plan to stay? There are things you can do to make your house less susceptible to damage and destruction.
The Institute for Business & Home Safety has a program called Fortified for Safer Living, which helps homeowners and builders incorporate materials and technologies into new homes that will allow the buildings to withstand severe weather like hurricanes and earthquakes. For example, there are ways to connect a roof to walls and walls to the foundation so that the stress of, say, hurricane wind, would be distributed throughout the structure instead of just affecting one wall. The strategies can make a home fire-, tornado- or earthquake-resistant. The organization has a ZIP code locator that will tell you what kinds of things can help your home.
"It's just like you would choose the safety features on your vehicle," Rose says. "You should also choose them for your home."
© 2012 Forbes.com