These Natural Disasters Can Occur in Alabama! Are You Prepared?

Natural disasters in Alabama

Alabama has a rich and incredible history. You may hear people calling it by some of its nicknames: the Heart of Dixie, the Yellowhammer State, and the Cotton State.

It’s famously known as the birthplace of the civil rights movement where Dr.Martin Luther King preached, where Rosa Parks incited the Montgomery Bus Boycott after refusing to give up her seat, and where thousands of people marched for racial justice across Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. 

Its history is also rooted in the iron and steel industry. It’s the only US state where all the natural resources are found to make iron and steel, therefore it should come as no surprise that it’s the largest supplier of cast-iron and pipe products!

Alabama is widely known for its amazing cuisine, sweat tea, Southern hospitality, beautiful landscapes, and adoration for football.

If you’re up to date with the news, you’ll know that the Heart of Dixie is not devoid of natural disasters.

The hot and humid summers are no joke, and as you may have become aware, the Gulf of Mexico region is significantly affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, and other hazards.

What natural disasters does Alabama have?

Alabama’s most common natural disasters include severe storms, tropical storms and hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, extreme heat, landslides, and power outages.

Between 1953 and 2019, Alabama declared 87 major disasters, of which severe storms and hurricanes happened the most according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

1. Severe Storms

Severe thunderstorms are Alabama's most common natural disaster. Lightning, heavy rains, high winds, and fog are to be expected throughout the year, but primarily during the Spring and Fall seasons.

Hail storms are known to occur throughout the state as well, however seldom are they destructive. 

The northern region tends to receive more rain than the southern region, which as a whole averages a total of 56 inches of rain yearly— this is almost twice as much as the national average. Some cities have an average of 100 days of thunderstorms per year!

Fun fact: Mobile, Alabama is known as the wettest city in the United States where the average rainfall is 67 inches.

You can expect all types of severe storms in the state of Alabama, including dangerous cold snaps or an occasional winter storm with heavy snow and ice storm.

It's important to know what to do to stay safe during these types of hazards.

When there's a storm warning, be sure to postpone any outdoor activities and take shelter inside a sturdy building until the storm passes.

Severe storms, particularly excessive rainfall, can contribute to a variety of weather-related emergencies, such as floods, flash floods, and landslides, so be sure to have a plan for those possibilities as well.

Read our guide on severe weather preparedness here and download the checklists!

2. Tornadoes

There is a high tornado risk in Alabama— the riskiest regions being the Northern and Central parts of the state. These regions are located in what’s popularly known as “Dixie Alley”.

Alabama averages between 45 and 60 tornadoes each year. Although they can occur any time of the year, they primarily occur during the cold months — that is, between late autumn (November) and spring (April). Alabama took the lead in 2021 with 64 tornado reports between January and March, of which at least one was deadly.

The Yellowhammer State ranks #2 in the United States when it comes to deadly tornadoes. Researchers speculate that the reason for this could be related to the high population density as well as the large number of trees which turn into projectiles when uprooted.

Alabama's deadliest natural disaster to date was the Deep South Tornado Outbreak. It occurred on March 21, 1932 and caused 286 deaths.

One of the largest tornado outbreaks in Alabama’s history occurred on April 27, 2011. On that day, there were 29 confirmed tornadoes in Central Alabama alone, and 62 confirmed tornadoes state-wide. Of the 29, one was an EF5 and four were EF4’s.

The EF5 tornado occurred in Hackleburg and it reached maximum wind speeds of 210 mph. It traveled 25.14 miles and caused 18 fatalities and 100 injuries.

The deadliest of the twenty-nine was an EF4 multiple-vortex tornado known as the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado. It traveled nearly 81 miles while destroying Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and all the communities in between. It caused 65 fatalities and 1,500 injuries. Maximum wind speeds were recorded at 190 mph.

The combined cost of damages from the outbreak was estimated to be around $10.2 billion (2011 USD).

Tornadoes can develop so quickly that they don't allow us much time to get prepared. Therefore, becoming prepared needs to happen long before one occurs. 

The best way to start is to learn what a tornado watch, tornado warning, and tornado sirens mean.

A critical part of your tornado emergency plan is to designate a 'safe room' in your home. A safe room should have no exterior windows or doors and should become the location where you shelter in place while the tornado passes.

In your shelter you should keep non-perishable food, water, and basic emergency supplies like first aid items, emergency blankets, etc to meet the specific needs of household members. 

During tornado season specifically, watch for dark, rotating clouds. If you see one, take shelter immediately. Learn how to prepare for and stay safe during tornadoes here.

3. Tropical Storms and Hurricanes

Tropical storms and hurricanes are common in Alabama, especially in the southern part of the state and along the coast. 

Hurricane season is from June through November. The peak season for tropical activity is between July and October, but off-season storms are not uncommon.

One of the worst hurricanes in Alabama’s history made landfall in Dauphin Island on September 13, 1979. Hurricane Frederic was a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained wind speeds of 132 mph and an eye that measured approximately 50 miles wide (east to west) and 40 miles wide (north to south). It caused 12 fatalities and approximately $1.77 billion (1979 USD) in damages.

Hurricane Ivan was Alabama's costliest hurricane. It made landfall as a Category 5 storm and caused $18 billion (2004 USD) in the state alone.

Other significant storms have affected Alabama in recent years, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (notably one of the worst in U.S. history), Tropical Storm Alberto in 2018, Hurricane Sally in September 2020, and Hurricane Zeta in October 2020.

Preparing for future disasters like these is vital, especially if you live in the southern part of the state.

Long before a hurricane, you should install storm shutters on your windows and garage doors, or have plywood (measured to fit around your windows) ready to install.

It’s crucial to discuss an evacuation plan with your family members as well. You can read our guide on hurricane preparedness here- it's complete with mitigation strategies, safety tips, and printable checklists. 

4. Floods

With an excess of water comes the risk of flooding. Flash flooding can occur anywhere, but Alabama has a disadvantage because it’s one of the states in the nation with the lowest overall elevation.

The majority of the state lies somewhere between sea level and 500 feet — the highest point in the state is only 2,407 feet (at Cheaha Mountain)!

Many of the storms that come through bring in large amounts of water, posing a threat to the valleys and low-lying areas. The most common causes of flooding are coastal storms, overflowing rivers, heavy rainfall, and dam failure.

In order to become prepared for floods, you should know your home and community’s overall risk level. Check out the National Flood Insurance Program to see which insurance options may be available to you.

Even if your risk is low, you need to have a solid evacuation, family communications plan, and emergency supply kit.

Be sure to learn different routes and back roads in your area, in case your primary route becomes flooded. Never attempt to cross flood waters, even if you’re a good swimmer.

For a complete guide on flood mitigation, check out this guide.

5. Wildfires

Alabama has a moderate risk of wildfires. On average, the state experiences 1,300 fires annually that burn a total of 20,000 to 30,000 acres state-wide. In 2020, there were 775 fires with a total of 10,783 acres burned.

Even though the numbers in 2020 were significantly lower, an estimated 59%, or 2.8 million Alabamians, are living in areas that are considered to be at an elevated risk of fires.

Alabama has a statewide burn restriction in which a permit is required to burn a “field, grassland, or woodland” larger than a quarter acre.

The restriction was instilled in response to the current drought situation. In order to protect the air quality, some counties are under a burn ban.

Like most other disasters, wildfires can be extremely powerful and challenging to contain especially when the conditions are hot and dry.

In order to prevent fires from getting too close to your property, you should create defensible space to reduce the extent of losses.

In other words, you should clear a large space between your home and any items that can increase the chances of the fire growing more intense.

For instance, do some periodic maintenance of your landscaping, such as cutting overhanging branches that are close to your roof, removing dry shrubbery and leaves, and keeping firewood within a significant distance from your home.

Learn more mitigation tips in this complete guide to wildfires.

6. Extreme Heat and Drought

Alabama has a humid subtropical climate. Because of its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the state experiences temperatures well into the 90°F’s during the summer months.

The extreme south has the benefit of the winds coming in from the Gulf that help cool the region down. The Northern part of the state has slightly cooler temperatures as well because of the altitude.

The hottest temperature ever recorded in Alabama occurred on September 6, 1925, when the thermometer reached 112°F in Centerville. While temperatures like that are relatively uncommon, the accompanying high humidity makes it dangerous.

Currently, over 160,000 Alabamians are vulnerable to extreme heat. This number may change, however. Weather experts and scientists believe that the number of hot days in the state is progressively lasting longer and affecting a larger number of people.

Another issue that hot temperatures pose to the state is droughts. As of the writing of this article, nearly 43% of Alabama is in the D0 tier (abnormally dry) and 7% is in the D1 tier (moderate drought). You can keep up with the current drought monitor here.

Periods of extreme heat mixed with humidity sound dreadful in theory, but in reality, it’s dangerous and possibly even deadly. That is why it’s so important to become prepared to withstand heat waves, specifically when considering vulnerable persons under our care, such as youth and the elderly.

In this guide, we discuss safety tips, including what symptoms to look out for to get your loved ones the help they need if they’re experiencing heat illnesses.

We also discuss mitigation strategies, such as how to use less A/C and reduce your electricity bill while staying cooler, or how to stay cool if the power goes out during a heat wave. Learn all of that, and more, here.

7. Landslides

Wherever there are slopes, soil, and mountains, there lies a vulnerability of landslides. The most common types of landslides in Alabama are creep (a slow downward movement of rock or soil on slopes), slides (movements of rock or soil along a rupture surface), and rockfalls.

The Northern half of Alabama is more prone to landslides, but there’s a minor risk throughout the Southern half as well.

In order to become prepared for a landslide, you should first look at your risk level. Keep in mind that this could change periodically due to the ever-changing topography of the Earth, as well as with every new construction project that occurs near hillsides and steep slopes.

The second step is to learn the warning signs of landslides, such as what triggers them and the sounds they make as they’re occurring. The last step is to have an evacuation and family communication and reunification plan.

This will ensure that you know how to get to higher ground immediately, should a landslide be happening near you, as well as how to get back in touch with loved ones if phone lines are destroyed.

Learn everything you need to know about landslide preparedness here!

8. Earthquakes

Although generally mild, earthquakes do occur in Alabama.

There are four zones of seismic activity that affect the state: the South Carolina Seismic Zone (to the East), the Southern Appalachian Seismic Zone (to the North), the New Madrid Seismic Zone (to the Northwest), and the Bahamas Fracture Seismic Zone (to the Southwest).

Earthquakes are monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Due to its proximity, the earthquakes generated by the Southern Appalachian Seismic Zone are felt the strongest. One of the strongest earthquakes in recent history occurred on April 29, 2004, in DeKalb County. The 4.9 magnitude shaker caused minor structural damage.

Earthquakes have been known to damage infrastructures, such as water pipes, walls, chimneys, windows, roads, and other issues.

It’s important to have an action plan in place so that you and the members of your household are prepared to take cover from possible flying debris and/or evacuate the home if the damage is extensive.

Learn everything you need to know about earthquake preparedness here!

9. Power Outages

Power outages can occur anywhere and can last for a few short minutes, or in extreme cases, for days. Each of the potential emergencies mentioned above can contribute to widespread outages.

It’s prudent to prepare for the worst potential emergency events because there’s no guarantee on how long it will take crews to rebuild the power grid after it gets damaged.

In the case of a power outage, becoming prepared would mean having alternative means of cooking your food, knowing how to preserve the food in your fridge and freezer, and having a way to charge small electronic devices and medical appliances, if applicable.

Investing in a generator would be a wise idea, but that also comes with the responsibility of knowing how to operate it properly.

Check out this guide on power outage preparedness to learn which items we recommend you have for a long-term blackout and some tips on how to stay safe.

Natural disaster resources for Alabama

The impact of disasters cannot be underestimated.

Alabama is inevitably a hot spot for natural disasters, but luckily there's a lot of help available to ensure that you are fully equipped.

  • Sign up for alerts on your phone with the National Weather Service App - NOAA Weather Radio. This is one of the easiest ways to receive notifications of weather alerts and warnings, so be sure to download the app and keep your phone charged.

    Other places you can get updates about local hazards are via local television and radio stations, and their social media sites.

  • Learning about your community’s disaster risk is the first step in becoming prepared for a future emergency.

    In each of our detailed disaster guides, we discuss mitigation and safety steps to help you become prepared. Download the free checklists for future reference!

  • One of the best ways to put your preparedness plan into action is by joining a local organization that shares similar values. CERT, the Community Emergency Response Team, may be a great fit for you!

    This is a federal government organization that prepares community members to look after themselves and their neighbors during a local disaster. To find your local CERT, click here.

  • If you have services or supplies to offer during a crisis situation, you should reach out to the Alabama VOAD, which is the Voluntary Organization Active in Disasters.

    They connect with local governments, local officials, first responders, relief workers, and community members to provide assistance immediately after a disaster.

    Another organization to look into is the American Red Cross. They set up emergency shelter and provide food, water, the the replacement of essential items to disaster survivors.

  • For additional information on becoming prepared for emergencies in Alabama, you can check out the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

    Their website has information on local emergency plans, various recovery options, and disaster assistance. 

I hope you enjoyed learning about the disasters that affect Alabama.

We created an in-depth resource with guides, templates, and checklists that will allow you to customize your emergency plan according to your specific needs. Click here to get started!

Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here!

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