Arizona is known for being the home of one of the seven wonders of the world: the Grand Canyon. That is why it’s nicknamed the Grand Canyon State.
Arizona is also known for its vast deserts, such as the Sonoran Desert which happens to be the only place in the world where the Saguaro cactus grows.
Many people are surprised to learn that the state has much more diverse landscapes than just deserts. The northern region boasts forests with spruce, fir, and pine trees. There are also 210 mountain ranges across the state! The highest elevation among these mountains is just over 12,600 feet. In the cities located at higher altitudes, you can expect to see snow during the winter and get an authentic skiing or snowboarding experience by going to one of its four ski resorts.
Arizona has a lot of other unique places to visit, such as the original London Bridge, Havasupai Falls, Glen Canyon, Keyhole Sink, one of the many spas in Scottsdale, the Barringer Meteorite Crater (the world’s largest impact crater), and many old towns and sites of the Wild West which have been preserved.
Among its tourist attractions, you can get a feel for the state’s rich history by visiting an Indian Reservation where you will learn a lot about the uniqueness of different Native American tribes, their languages, and cultures.
The Grand Canyon state is a beautiful place to visit and live, but just like everywhere else, it is not immune to natural disasters.
What natural disasters does Arizona have?
Arizona’s most common natural disasters include:
- severe storms
- extreme heat
- extreme cold
- power outages
- and on occasion, tornadoes and microbursts
Between 1953 and 2019, Arizona declared 74 major disasters, of which wildfires and floods happened the most according to FEMA.
Wildfires are common in Arizona, typically averaging over 2,200 fires per year. One of the reasons why fires are so common is the long-lasting hot and dry climate which provides the perfect environment for a fire at the end of the summer. The majority of fires are said to be caused by human behavior, whether because of carelessness or maliciousness, and a small percentage are linked to nature, as would be the case with lightning strikes.
In May 2011, Arizona experienced the biggest wildfire in its history. It was named the Wallow Fire and it burned 538,049 acres, destroyed 72 structures, and injured 16 people. It took over a month for the fire to become contained but not before crossing the state line into New Mexico. The cause was attributed to two people camping in the White Mountains.
The devastation caused during this fire is experienced at smaller scales each and every year, so becoming prepared for the chance of it happening in your community is vital. Wildfires can travel quickly if the conditions are favorable for them to spread. This is why it’s recommended that you implement mitigation methods to prevent your home from becoming a target. Also, you should come up with an evacuation plan with your family to ensure you get to safety quickly if a fire approaches your community with little warning. Find wildfire mitigation and evacuation tips here!
Floods are no strangers to Arizona. Regional floods are common during extended periods of heavy precipitation, broken dams or levees, overflowing rivers and water channels, among other causes. Regional floods can cause extensive damage to a community's infrastructure and personal property. In some cases, it can take up to six months for the waters to recede completely.
On the other hand, flash floods are as the name implies, fast-moving. They can come and go in a short time period. They can leave behind extensive damage, sweeping away anything along their path (including people and animals). Flash floods are the most common during Arizona’s monsoon season which begins in June and lasts through September. This season is known for producing short, localized rain storms of heavy intensity. But monsoon season is not the only time floods can be expected. Any period of heavy precipitation, such as during a tropical storm, combined with other contributing factors can cause floods to occur.
One of the worst floods in Arizona’s history happened during Tropical Storm Octave in early October 1983. The storm resulted in the destruction of infrastructure, inundated fields and homes displacing over 10,000 people, 975 injuries, 14 fatalities, and over $370 million in flood damages.
Preparing for a flood begins by understanding the risk level that your property and community have with respect to the threat of a flood. FEMA has flood hazard maps on their website which give you a general idea, but for a more accurate estimate go to your city’s building & safety or planning office. During periods of heavy rain (and rapid snowmelt in some areas), the risk increases dramatically. If your home is near a river or dam, be aware of the possibility of rising water levels and dam failures. Have an evacuation plan and practice it with your family. For more flood preparedness tips, check out our guide.
3. Severe Storms
Several types of storms occur in Arizona, including tropical storms, lightning and thunderstorms, supercells, strong gusty winds, hail, monsoons, and dust storms (also known as haboobs). Monsoon season (June through September) is known for producing the ideal environmental conditions that make the extravagant lightning displays a distinctive feature of the state. Severe storms can cause extensive damage in the form of lightning striking structures, trees, or people, as well as heavy rain producing floods, hail stones breaking windows, and haboobs causing low visibility and terrible air conditions.
If you still can’t picture the severity of some of these storms, look at these facts:
- A single storm in the summer of 2019 produced more than 97,000 lightning flashes!
- The largest hail stone to fall in Arizona measured 4.5 inches in diameter.
- The deadliest storm in recent history is tropical storm Norma which occurred on September 4th and 5th in 1970. It caused 23 deaths.
- Every year an average of one to three dust storms affect Phoenix. They last anywhere between a few minutes to an hour and are known for reducing visibility to the point that multi-vehicle accidents generally occur.
Severe storms are oftentimes unpredictable and unexpected which is why we should be on alert if they are forecasted. In order to stay safe during a thunderstorm, lightning, hail storms, monsoons, or haboobs you should have a preparedness plan that can easily be put into action. Our guide on severe storms highlights many important safety and mitigation tips. You should also think about what to do in the event that you’re caught outside during any storm and be able to quickly identify a safe place of temporary refuge, whether it be a local store or your home.
4. Extreme Heat and Droughts
Extreme heat is practically synonymous with the Grand Canyon State. The state’s maximum temperature was recorded at 128°F in Lake Havasu City on June 29, 1994. The record heat in Phoenix is not far off, reaching an impressive 122°F on June 26, 1990. August is by far the hottest month of the year averaging temperatures between 99°F and 110°F state-wide. August is also the month that tied a record in 2020 with eight consecutive days of temperatures of 117°F in Phoenix. This event was described as an “intense and relentless” heatwave.
Unfortunately, due to the extreme heat and human intervention, it seems Arizona is running out of water. Experts say that most of the natural running surface water has dried up and supplying large cities with potable water is becoming increasingly more difficult. As of the writing of this article, the US Drought Monitor shows that the entire state is under some level of drought but primarily D3 intensity which is extreme.
Considering the state’s patterns of long-lasting heat waves, prolonged droughts, and major water shortages, it’s important to be water-wise and conserve the few resources that are currently available. Preparing for extreme summer heat is equally important. There are several ways to stay cool in severely hot weather. The best thing to do is to keep your home’s windows and blinds shut through the day (especially during the peak hot hours) and only open them in the evening for ventilation. Using the air conditioner at home can become costly, so spend time in public places that are air-conditioned, such as the mall, library, or movie theater. Be sure to learn the symptoms of heat stress and heatstroke. If you or anyone in your family is experiencing those symptoms, get medical help immediately. Learn more about extreme heat here.
5. Extreme Cold and Winter Storms
When you think of the Grand Canyon State, snow is probably not the first thing that comes to mind, but surprisingly enough, some regions get pretty cold during the winter season.
The coldest temperature recorded in Arizona was -40°F on January 7, 1971. But -40°F is a rare occurrence. During the winter months, the average nighttime temperatures in the desert tend to fall just below freezing.
The snowiest big city in Arizona is Flagstaff, generally receiving around 102 inches of snow each year. The deadliest winter storm in Flagstaff occurred in December of 1967. A blizzard dumped between 83 and 86 inches of snow in Flagstaff. The storm that lasted a total of 8 days paralyzed the city and resulted in tens of millions of dollars in damage, agricultural losses, and the death of 9 people.
The best way to be prepared for cold weather is by wearing the appropriate clothing when going outdoors. Prevent hypothermia by knowing the early onset of symptoms and call for medical help immediately if any symptoms are observed. Having a winter emergency kit in your car is essential if you drive often and/or commute to work by car. Find our guide to winter safety and preparedness here!
Arizona has a risk of landslides in all 15 of its counties. Researchers are constantly analyzing the evidence of previous landslips and debris flows to work towards a mitigation plan and strategy to reduce future risks, especially when it comes to protecting large metropolitan cities.
According to the Arizona Geological Survey, the McDowell Mountains are home to one of Arizona’s largest landslides. The debris flow deposit that resulted from a catastrophic rock avalanche is known as the Marcus Landslide and is 1,650 feet long. It helps to remind us of the risks present throughout the state.
Landslides can have devastating effects on life, property, and infrastructure. While there are ways to mitigate landslides, it would be nearly impossible to outrun one. Your first priority for staying safe during a landslide is to get to an elevated area away from rivers, canals, and valleys. Landslides can be triggered by large amounts of rainfall, heavily saturated soil, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Be on alert if such events occur. If you hear the approaching sound of trees breaking or rocks crashing, this is your cue to find higher ground immediately. For mitigation tips, check out our landslide guide here.
There are no major fault lines in Arizona however there are minor ones that lie within the Northern Arizona Seismic Belt. The Seismic Belt runs from Flagstaff to Utah and there are two known faults that have the potential of a magnitude 7 to 7.5 quake. Still, the risk is much lower than it is in California.
Many people wonder if Arizona can be affected by the San Andreas Fault, and researchers believe that yes, the western part of the state could experience significant damages if the shaker is above a magnitude of 7 near Palm Springs, CA. A powerful earthquake can destroy the electrical grid, water and sewage systems, infrastructure, personal property, and pose many challenges for the communities affected, including the possibility of the loss of life.
In order to be best prepared for an earthquake, you should secure heavy and loose items throughout your home, practice earthquake drills, and have an emergency kit ready to go. Your kit should contain the essentials to survive 72 hours on your own, whether that’s at home or at an evacuation area. Since it’s possible for a quake to occur while you’re sleeping, it’s a good idea to keep a pair of sturdy shoes and a flashlight (with charger batteries) under your bed. Earthquakes can cause windows to break, items to fly off walls, and debris to scatter. Using the shoes by your bedside will prevent your feet from getting injured. Practicing drills, such as the annual ShakeOut drill, will be a great way to polish your disaster response plan. For earthquake mitigation tips, read our guide!
8. Power Outages
Every state faces the possibility of power outages. While short disruptions to our electric supply generally pose no major problems to most families, there are those who are dependent on devices (I’m talking medical and not mobile). You can survive a couple of hours without wifi, but someone that is hooked to a breathing machine or another medical device will have to consider alternative forms of electricity to help them during a long-term power outage.
The 2011 Southwest Blackout was one of the longest power outages to affect parts of Arizona. Due to an accidental technician issue, millions of people across Southern California, Western Arizona, and Northern Mexico were left in the dark for nearly 12 hours. This resulted in approximately $12 to $18 million in financial losses from grocery stores, eating establishments, sewage, and water. It goes without saying that we are vulnerable to the possibility of this occurring again, except next time, the cause may be linked to a natural disaster.
One of the best ways to prepare for a power outage is by learning to go without. Since a disaster can knock out the electricity for days or weeks, put together a kit that includes flashlights with plenty of batteries and a generator to power up small devices and your fridge. To this kit, include all the other essentials such as food, water, and a stove and fuel kit for cooking, or learn which meals can be prepared without electricity. Spend a weekend at home without electricity (turn off the power main) and do your best to survive with all the items in your kit. An electricity-free weekend will help you learn where your plan is lacking and how to improve for the day when it actually happens. For more power outage tips, read our guide!
According to the Arizona Geological Survey, there are thousands of extinct volcanoes and three active volcanic ‘fields’ in the state. These fields include the San Francisco, Uinkaret, and Pinacate fields. The Uinkaret is the one who has produced the most recent volcanic activity, however, the last major eruption occurred about 1,000 years ago.
It is unknown when the next eruption is going to take place, but in order to become prepared, you should know your risk level. If you’re in close proximity to an active volcano, you should have an emergency kit with all the necessary supplies to shelter in place or evacuate if you have to. In this guide, you can find recommendations for a volcano emergency kit as well as a checklist with safety tips.
While not the most common disaster, the Grand Canyon State is known for experiencing occasional tornadoes and microbursts. According to the NOAA Storm Prediction Center, Arizona averages 4 tornadoes each year. Microbursts generally occur in the southern part of the state and almost always cause widespread destruction, including downed power lines.
The largest single-day tornado event in the history of Arizona occurred on October 6th, 2010. On that day, 11 tornadoes touched down. Two of them were EF3 tornadoes, four were EF2, two were EF1, and three were EF0. Hail as large as a baseball was also reported.
Tornadoes can develop in a matter of minutes, giving people little to no warning. Knowing the weather patterns and warning signs of a tornado Is crucial in becoming prepared for one. In this guide, you can find mitigation and safety tips. Make it a habit to keep mental notes of places that would be safe to shelter in, should an emergency occur while you’re at home, at work, or in other places you frequent most.
Natural disaster resources for Arizona
You should take advantage of the many emergency preparedness resources available within Arizona. These are some ideas:
- In order to stay tuned with real-time weather alerts, you should download the NOAA Weather App on your smartphone or tablet. This app will send you notifications of weather alerts and warnings, so make sure the device you’re using remains charged.
- We understand the hassle of disaster planning, so we simplified it for you. Click this link to find the guides to each disaster type. You can learn mitigation and safety tips, as well as download our free checklist for future use.
- Learning preparedness skills and becoming trained in basic first aid should become one of your priorities. Luckily, the Community Emergency Response Team, otherwise known as CERT, provides free training to everyone. Find your local CERT here!
- Sometimes the support that is needed after a disaster occurs is in the form of supplies and not just physical labor. If you have access to supplies or resources that might become useful after an emergency, consider contacting your local VOAD. The Arizona Voluntary Organization Active in Disasters is an organization that collects information about all the resources available within the state. When your supplies are needed, they may contact you to see if you’re still able to provide those. This is an incredible way to help your community.
- For more information on preparing and recovering from disasters, be sure to check out Arizona’s Department of Emergency and Military Affairs website.
I hope you enjoyed learning about Arizona’s most common disasters.
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Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here!