Taking a road trip from Illinois to San Francisco for our annual summer vacation was an adventure in many ways. When I first looked out the window of our hotel in the Mission District of San Francisco, I peered up at the Tuscany-beautiful hills and thought, “Those have be a hassle after the first snowstorm.” Then I corrected myself: No snowstorms here.
While on our trip, we met up with a couple of friends who had recently moved to San Francisco from the Midwest. Instead of outfitting their cars with winter tires, they first set to work putting together an earthquake kit. For one of them, the most nerve-wracking part of their relocation was the idea that the earth could open up and swallow them — but they awaited their first earthquake with glee. When it finally happened, one friend thought a truck was going by on the street below, only it went on longer. She whooped and cheered, and then turned to see her darling husband looking pale, his forgotten beer overflowing onto his hand.
I was fascinated at how the most likely natural disaster shapes the architecture and culture of a region. I thought of sturdy brick houses and brownstones found in the East as the ultimate barrier against the elements. In the West, wooden structures are considered more earthquake-proof, and many of the charming Victorian and Edwardian homes that scream “San Francisco!” (as well as “Uncle Jessie!”) have wooden frames that let them bounce safely through the 1906 earthquake, yet left them vulnerable to fire.
Never mind the Midwest, where we hail from. Growing up here, I remember fleeing like Dorothy to the tornado cellar, and thinking monsters were real, because that’s what it sounded like.
When we got back from our trip, I did a little more research and found this map detailing where to live to avoid a natural disaster, created by Sperling’s Best Places and printed in The New York Times. It shows that although psychologically it’s difficult to get used to the idea of the earth actually moving under one’s feet (and not in a retro-funky Carole King kind of way),Northern California actually has a very low risk of natural disasters. The safest region is the Pacific Northwest, with Corvallis, Oregon listed as the metro area least likely to yield quakes, droughts, or various forms of extreme weather. At the other end of the spectrum, Dallas, Texas is most at risk for tornadoes, hurricanes, hail, high winds, drought and floods.
That’s right: Drought and floods, in the same city. That just doesn’t seem fair, does it?
The maps also showed which disasters are most likely to hit each region. Predictably, the most earthquakes happen out West, with the entire left coast being one big brown earthquake-zone. The hurricane zone is most prevalent in the southeast, from Florida up to Virginia. The most dangerous spot for tornados appears as a big dot almost completely obscuring Oklahoma.
2011 was actually a record-breaking year for natural disasters across the United States, with tornadoes costing the most ($28 billion, according to The Daily Green) and blizzards costing the least (a mere $1.8 billion). Scientists report that though these incidents are increasing, and costs are as well, fatalities are actually decreasing as we all get better at handling them.
Oddly, all these color-coded maps and details of natural disasters have had the opposite effect from the one I intended. The other day, I caught my husband testing our wind-up radio to make sure it works and refreshing the supply of D batteries in our tornado kit. But that’s fine with me. The more prepared we are, the more I can enjoy tracking the storm from our basement.