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Disasters lead to search for 'Safest City, USA'

After a spring of disasters — tornadoes, flooding, wildfires and drought across the U.S. — you might have asked yourself: Is there any place that's safe?
Image: To match Special Report CLIMATE-CROPS
The natural disasters to hit the U.S. this year include the tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo., on May 22, killing 153 people. Sarah Conard / Reuters
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During a spring of disasters — tornadoes, flooding, wildfires and drought across the U.S. (not to mention Japan's quake/tsunami) — you might have asked yourself: Is there any place that's safe?

"Maybe Montana or Idaho for a low tornado threat, no chance of a hurricane, low but not zero quake threat," proffers storm expert Greg Forbes of The Weather Channel.

Some have tried to map out the risk. The New York Times last April showed much of the South covered with red dots indicating "higher risk," while the West Coast was dotted a comfortable green. (A smaller, secondary map did note the West's earthquake risk.)

Others have come up with lists. After Hurricane Katrina, Forbes magazine produced one showing that Honolulu, Hawaii, was the safest U.S. city based on past records.

But many folks taking a long view on natural disasters, i.e. insurance experts and government scientists, have a different perspective: Every place has a risk.

"Safe is a relative term," says Julie Rochman, president of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. "What do you want to be safe from?"

Montana, Idaho? They're seeing flooding now and have plenty of experience with wildfires.

The West Coast? Besides the obvious earthquakes, there's danger of tsunamis, landslides and wildfires.

Honolulu? The Weather Channel recently named it the city "most overdue" for a major hurricane.

On top of that, Rochman asks, do you want your disasters to be seasonal, e.g. hurricanes and tornadoes, or surprises, e.g. earthquakes and tsunamis.

When it comes to Mother Nature, "we are a very diverse country," she adds. "We are the tornado capital of the planet, and Clearwater, Florida, is the lightning capital. We have two coasts and a northern and southern latitude."

Much of the natural disaster data for the nation is compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, yet even that agency doesn't want to put too much faith in the number and location of disasters.

"Unless you are in a fallout shelter in the middle of some weird desolate place, I'm not sure you can use a data set to say this is where you should live," says USGS spokesman Mark Newell.

"Every place has its own inherent risks," he adds. "If you put a place on a map I can tell you two to three consequences of living there."

So what to do? Adapt and mitigate.

Newell has lived in California (quakes), Texas (drought) and Washington D.C. (blizzard) and now resides in Missouri (tornadoes). "You understand the environment that you're in and adapt to it," he says.

"I don't see Missouri as tornado alley," he adds. "You just have to understand that each area is going to bring a series of climate and natural disaster hazards."

The insurance industry focus is on preparing.

"It's really more important to mitigate" than to uproot yourself, says Terese Rosenthal, the U.S. spokeswoman for MunichRE, one of the largest companies that reinsure the insurers.

"That's why we push building codes," adds Rochman.

"No one size fits all," she acknowledges, and "one of the challenges we have is that you can only talk to people about so many things that are scary or they get frozen in place."

Rochman feels that as long as insurance rates are not subsidized to protect people in risky areas, they can send a weighted risk message to residents. "If they are properly set," she says, "they are a good indication that you are doing, or not doing, something risky."

Just don't expect insurance rates — or historical data, for that matter — to define a "Safest City, USA."

"I applaud the idea," says Newell, the USGS spokesman. But choose any place and "people living there will say, 'Yeah, but you forgot ...'"