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Study: Southern California is the most disaster-prone region in the USA

LOS ANGELES >> Southern California is a disaster.

Oh, did you hear?

Sure, but in this case, “disaster” is not a synonym for “too expensive” or “not as cool as I was when I was a kid” or “politically insane.”

No, this time disaster really means disaster. In fact, Southern California is considered the most disaster-prone region in the country, according to a new national ranking of over 3,200 U.S. counties.

Earthquakes, fires, floods, droughts, rising sea levels, deadly surf, heat waves, cold snaps, hurricanes (sort of), and tree-eating beetles strike our region more frequently and often with greater intensity than the tornadoes and hurricanes that ravage other disaster-prone regions like southern Texas, coastal Louisiana, and pretty much every inch of Florida.

And when you factor in other factors related to disasters—a community's ability (or inability) to respond to a destructive natural event, the cost of rebuilding buildings and roads, the average resident's access to emergency medical care—Southern California ranks worst in what emergency experts call “disaster vulnerability.”

In a new report from ClaimGuard.org, a Florida-based nonprofit that tracks issues important to insurance customers, researchers used state and federal data to rank Los Angeles as the most “disaster-prone” county in the country. Three other counties in the region — Riverside (No. 3), San Bernardino (No. 4) and Orange (No. 8) — also ranked in the national top 10, and San Diego and Ventura counties ranked 11th and 19th, respectively.

The survey examined each county's disaster history and three separate but related aspects: estimated costs of rebuilding, the number of people most likely to be injured in major disasters, and overall community resilience. By all of these measures, Southern California's counties were classified as disaster hotspots.

“None of this is a surprise if you live there,” said Collin Czarnecki, a ClaimGuard data researcher who helped produce the report.

“It's not scary or bad,” he added. “It's just the reality.”

DISASTER INC.

It is also expensive.

The study estimates that natural disasters will cost the four Southern California counties about $7 billion this year. The bulk ($3.9 billion) is expected to come from Los Angeles County, but Riverside County ($1.2 billion), San Bernardino County ($1.1 billion) and Orange County ($985 million) could also spend money on a long list of problems that arise during natural disasters – repairs, health care, communications, management, infrastructure and environmental remediation.

It is unclear what share of these expenses could be borne by local taxpayers.

When a governor asks the federal government to declare a particular event a “federal disaster,” it is because that designation means the state will ultimately receive money from Washington, DC to cover the costs of that specific disaster.

On that basis, California has been the most disaster-prone state in the country by a wide margin for at least a decade. From the beginning of 2014 through the end of 2023, the state requested federal disaster designation for 155 natural events, ranging from massive wildfires to prolonged heat waves. The second most at-risk state during that period was Florida, with 42 federal disaster designations.

But many events that cause damage are not eligible for federal or state aid. And when events reach the scale of a federal disaster, money from Washington can take years to reach the affected community and rarely covers every penny spent.

This is one reason why disaster relief funding often seems like a patchwork. Many counties use a combination of local revenues and federal and state grants to fund their emergency programs. And those programs are typically expanded or scaled back in large and other counties depending on current emergency needs.

In Los Angeles County, the region's largest county, the Emergency Management Office employs around 35 full-time managers and communications officers. They coordinate fire departments, police, environmental and health authorities, among others, and create public messages to prepare the population for impending emergencies or respond to major events.

This dynamic is one reason why Southern California is so vulnerable to disasters.

Although the region has been hit by devastating wildfires, droughts and floods in recent years (and experienced both a hurricane and a tornado last year), earthquakes are the region's greatest disaster threat. And unlike tornadoes, hurricanes or major storms, earthquakes aren't shown on the weather forecast hours or days before they hit.

“We need to respond, and we need to respond immediately,” said Emily Montanez, communications director for the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management.

Although she could not confirm the disaster spending projections, Montanez said the formula used in the new report — which measures an area's disaster vulnerability plus the type of population in that area — is a valid way to assess an area's vulnerability. The large number of homeless people living in the region, a housing market that forces families to share two homes or apartments, an aging population that often lives in isolated senior housing complexes and cultural diversity (about 185 languages ​​are spoken in Southern California, according to the Census Bureau) make the region more vulnerable to disasters.

“We definitely are,” said Montanez. “With our earthquake potential, we will always be number one.”

NATURALLY?

Or not.

Last year, there were 28 separate disasters in the United States that caused $1 billion or more in damage. These billion-dollar disasters – which began with flooding in Northern California in January and ended with storms that hit the East Coast in December – cost a total of $92.9 billion.

Oddly, Southern California was not affected by this trend. According to FEMA records, the region did not experience a single billion-dollar disaster last year, despite having experienced one or more such disasters for several years in a row.

Instead, our region has witnessed a strange series of natural disasters, with the meaning of the word “natural” evolving.

Last year, for example, Southern California was hit by a hurricane for the first time in decades, as was a tornado. Both were “natural” events that experts believe are at least partly due to the rapid climate change in the region.

So did the floods in early winter and, yes, late summer. And the beach erosion that washed away sand in southern Orange County. And the heat wave last summer that was so extreme it claimed lives in places as diverse as Death Valley and Riverside.

It is already well known that climate change is responsible for more frequent hurricanes and tornadoes, hotter heat waves, rising ocean temperatures, longer droughts, and whirlpool temperatures in the waters off Florida.

Natural disasters are becoming more and more frequent.

The number of billion-dollar disasters last year broke a record that had only been held since 2020, when the country experienced 22 billion-dollar disasters. And while there have been 376 billion-dollar disasters nationwide since 1980 (causing about $2.7 trillion in damage), more than half of that damage occurred in the last decade.

“We take into account global warming and sea level rise, and these issues are particularly acute in Southern California,” said ClaimGuide's Czarnecki.

“But actually, they're happening everywhere. It's not like Southern California is alone.”


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Anna Harden

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