As a long-time California resident, disaster preparedness was ingrained in me at a young age.
I’ll always remember the day my town got evacuated during the Old Fire in October 2003. It was pajama day at school. Halfway through the day, the teachers took all of us kids to the gymnasium and one by one, each student was called to the office. Then finally, my sister and I got called in too. Our parents came to pick us up, and in minutes, we were on our way to an evacuation center where we would spend the next 10 days co-living with a few other thousand evacuees. Returning home was a relief because we were blessed that our house was still standing. But the one-hour drive itself was traumatizing, as we couldn’t escape the sight of the hundreds of homes who were not so lucky, nor the intense odor of death that the fire left behind.
Fires were obviously not our only problem.
I remember another season of my life when I would pray myself to sleep each night by repeating the same phrase over and over. “God, please don’t let there be another earthquake”. After experiencing my first earthquake while I was sleeping, the fear of being woken up by another one was something I gipped onto for years. Earthquakes still make me nervous to this day, but I’m nowhere near as terrified now as I was then.
These dangers don’t pass with age. In fact, maybe we haven’t seen the worst just yet.
But we have a choice to become prepared for what may come. Natural disasters are inevitable, so in order to live with some sort of peace of mind, we need to become prepared for the calamities that the Golden State is prone to.
What natural disasters does California have?
Living in a beautiful state like California can come at a price! Many disasters take place here that make headlines around the world. California’s most common natural disasters include wildfires, floods, landslides, severe storms, earthquakes, winter storms, coastal storms, power outages, drought, and volcanoes. It’s no wonder that the Golden State is considered to be one of the most disaster-prone states in the US! Between 1953 and 2019, California declared 315 major disasters, of which wildfires and floods happened the most.
I’ve experienced several fires that got way too close to my home for comfort. A combination of factors influences our high risk here. The fall season is a vulnerable time because everything is so dry. If the summer months don't bring enough rain, then droughts are possible and wildfires can spread quickly. In recent years, there has been a link between faulty power lines starting fires, therefore companies like Pacific Gas and Electric have gotten comfortable with shutting off the electricity for several days as a method of prevention.
The most notable fire in California history broke out in November 2018. The Camp Fire in Butte County destroyed the entire town of Paradise in minutes, as well as parts of neighboring towns. This fire was blamed on PG&E’s electrical equipment and resulted in the loss of 18,800 structures and 85 persons. The people of Paradise have made incredible progress since then, but the scar will remain forever.
The Camp Fire was unique because the fire spread so quickly that people had very little time to escape. In most cases, you would receive an evacuation notice from the local authorities but Paradise serves as an example that that's not always the case. You should always have a backpack with emergency supplies to last you and those in your household for at least the first 72 hours following an emergency. In this backpack, remember to include important documents and other valuables that you can take with you during an evacuation. For more wildfire preparedness tips, check out our complete guide!
Most communities in California are at risk of getting flooded. In fact, approximately 20% of the population is especially vulnerable due to the topography of the region, the rivers flowing in and out of the valleys, and the episodes of heavy rainfall. Californians have experienced flooding due to overflowing rivers, excessive rain after a wildfire leading to saturation of the soil, rapid snowmelt, dam collapse, and levee breaks.
One of the worst floods in California’s recent history occurred on New Year’s day in 1997. A series of storms, which began prior to the holidays, caused major damage from the northern region of Shasta County through to the central region of Fresno. The initial cause was excessive rainfall, that resulted in a rapid snowmelt. Then, the rivers began to overflow, and many levees broke, causing extensive flooding that reached the roof of homes. This event cost the state approximately $2 billion.
Floods are one of the disasters that can occur anywhere. Being prepared, not just with emergency supplies but also home insurance, is ideal. Learn how to become prepared for a flood here.
Just like floods are common everywhere, so are landslides. Landslides can be triggered by earthquakes and land development projects but are especially common after heavy periods of rainfall. When the soil becomes saturated with water, the section of soil or rocks underneath might not be strong enough to hold on to the weight above it. This causes it to give way, and gain momentum as it flows downhill. Post-wildfire areas are highly vulnerable to mudslides because the ground has a much harder time absorbing water when the soil is mixed with ash. Landslides are fairly common in California because of its mountainous topography and its wildfire scars.
One of the deadliest mudslides in the history of the Golden State occurred on January 18, 1969, after more than 50 inches of rain fell over the southern region and caused several people to become trapped by mudslides. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, and 91 people were confirmed deceased as a result.
It’s important to know what your risk is when it comes to landslides. Many of them occur during the night, creating a larger possibility that people can become buried in their own homes while they’re sleeping. Learn the warning signs of a landslide and determine if the local threat is worth evacuating for. Find more safety tips on our landslide preparedness guide.
Even though this isn’t the greatest threat to our state, earthquakes seem to be synonymous with California. I can see why this would be! There are more than 15,700 documented fault lines throughout the state, and scientists keep discovering new ones. Over 500 of those faults are active and capable of causing moderate to extensive damage. To top this off, the majority of the residents here live within a 30-mile radius of an active fault. How’s that for risky!?
Two of California’s most destructive earthquakes occurred in the Northern and Southern parts of the state. The Loma Prieta 6.9 magnitude earthquake of 1989 shook the San Francisco Bay Area for only 15 seconds and caused approximately 3,800 injuries, 63 fatalities, and cost the state roughly $6 billion in damages. Just five years later, in 1994, the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake shook Southern California, and up to Las Vegas, NV, for almost 20 seconds. This quake resulted in 8,700 injured victims, 57 fatalities, and up to $44 billion in damages. It also set a record as one of the costliest disasters in the history of the United States (at that time).
To prepare for an earthquake, you should discuss an action and communication plan with your family. Since we don’t know the time when an earthquake will occur, it would be a good idea to practice different scenarios and determine how you will get in touch with your loved ones if you happen to not be together. Also, build a family emergency kit that includes water, food, and some basic supplies (including a first aid kit) to cover you and everyone in your household during the initial 72 hours following the quake. Consider that you may encounter other challenges, such as power outages and the possibility of evacuating if your home suffers extensive damages. For more ideas on earthquake preparedness, check out our complete guide!
5. Extreme Heat and Droughts
California houses three deserts, including the hottest place on Earth, in a section that covers approximately 25% of the state. It’s expected that extreme heat would affect the residents here. As a whole, the state averages 35 days a year of dangerously high temperatures. The warmth may contribute to California’s struggle with long seasons of drought. That’s quite possibly one of the reasons why the wildfires are so disastrous here. The drought monitor helps us see the real-time number and percentage of residents in abnormally dry areas, as well as the intensity of the drought per region.
During the hot summer months, it’s especially important to keep your cool—literally speaking! If your home is equipped with air conditioning, you can use it, but know that the high demand over a region may lead to power companies not being able to keep up. Power outages are common during this time, so find alternative places to go if the heat becomes too much. If you live near the beach, you can take a dip in the ocean or go to the pool. Also, you can go to a public place with A/C, like the mall or the public library. Remember to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and eating water-rich fruits and veggies. You can find more cool tips (pun intended!) on our guide here.
6. Severe Storms
The most common severe storms in California come in the form of high winds and occasional heavy rainfall— or snowfall in higher altitudes. High winds typically occur between the middle of Fall (October) up until the beginning of Spring (March), but from time to time, they can creep into the month of September and last through June. Winds not only cause damage, but they happen during our most vulnerable fire seasons.
Dust storms are rare, but they can cause a lot of damage. They tend to occur in the high desert areas.
7. Extreme Cold and Winter Storms
January is generally the coldest month in California, although the coastal and desert areas don’t feel the winter weather nearly as bad as the mountain folk does. I live in the mountains and can attest to the freezing weather the Golden State is capable of. Outsiders don’t always believe it, but it’s true! California has the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States. It should come as no surprise that lots of snow can be found in the mountain regions, although blizzards and severe winter weather is a lot less common.
If you’re planning a trip to the snow, always be prepared with an emergency kit for your car, including chains that fit your vehicle’s tires and supplies to dig your car out of the snow in case you get stuck. Always drive with extra caution to prevent accidents and keep water and snacks with high protein content.
8. Coastal Storms
The entire Western coast is at constant risk of tsunami waves and tidal surges. Although it’s not a disaster that happens very often, coastal storms can become disruptive. In the event of a strong earthquake, tsunami waves are likely to affect the beach cities and nearby areas. Hurricanes haven’t been a threat to California, so it’s very unlikely that they may occur in the future. But prepare for coastal flooding and know the signs of a tsunami, as well as what to do in the event of.
9. Power Outages
Power outages are not a “natural” disaster, per se, but they’re a big problem here in California. Like before mentioned, the electric company PG&E was blamed for causing the fire that destroyed Paradise, CA in 2018. As a result, a trend began in 2019 when severe winds and the drought threatened the state during the fall season. To prevent another fire, PG&E shut off power to 2.5 million customers for several days.
A short-term power outage may be feasible for most, but it can become dangerous when it lasts for days. Fire prevention is not the only reason this state has outages. In fact, every natural disaster listed here could do enough damage to disrupt the power lines. I implore you to prepare for future outages that could last three to seven days. It’s better to be prepared than sorry! If you need a place to start, check out my complete guide on power outage preparedness!
There are eight active and potentially active volcanoes throughout the state of California. These include Mount Shasta, Lassen Peak, Medicine Lake, Coso Peak, Clear Lake, Salton Buttes, Ubehebe Crater, and Long Valley, which includes Mammoth, Inyo, and Mono. The first three of these volcanoes are part of the Cascade Volcanic Mountain Range. The USGS monitors volcanic activity but that doesn’t mean that an eruption could occur spontaneously. These volcanoes have the potential to cause widespread damage, including large ash-covering, toxic air quality, and lahars.
The last volcano that erupted in California was Lassen Peak. The explosion occurred on May 22, 1915, and it caused a lot of damage to the nearby area, including hot ash, lahars, lava flows, and avalanches.
Anyone living near the mentioned volcanoes should remain on alert for any potential activity. Also, be prepared to evacuate quickly or at least get to higher ground in case of a lahar. Prepare an emergency kit with dust masks and clothing to protect your skin from the ash and air pollution. For more information on volcano risks and safety, take a look at our volcano guide.
Natural disaster resources for California
After reading all of the disasters that Californians have to endure, you may be wondering… What now? Where do I go from here? The state provides many resources to encourage the public to become prepared for future disasters and emergencies.
- Sign up to receive mobile weather alerts with the NOAA Weather App. This is a super convenient way to learn of developing storms and other weather-related disasters that may be threatening your area.
- Emergency preparedness is a complex topic, so we tried to make it easier for you by making a simple yet comprehensive guide that pertains to each disaster type. Click here to learn disaster safety, mitigation tips, and prepare a kit that matches the disaster you’re preparing for.
- Becoming part of the preparedness community is necessary to help you get in touch with like-minded individuals while learning practical ways to become prepared and how to help others during an emergency. Join your local CERT program or Citizen Corps Council here.
- Another organization you can get involved with is the California VOAD, short for California Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. When an emergency occurs, the different local groups gather to designate where incoming resources should be distributed. If you have resources to give, even if it’s your won personal volunteer time, you may sign up to their registrar and they will contact you when your services are needed.
- The California Office of Emergency Services offers resources to support people like you in all the phases of natural disasters. Find their website here.
I hope you’ve learned something about the natural hazards that can threaten the beautiful state of California. In the Golden State, it’s not a matter of IF something will occur, but rather WHEN. Please don’t get your emergency supplies ready at the last minute. Preparing in advance puts you in a much better place to survive any future disaster. Wishing you my sincere best when that day comes.
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