Kentucky is known for horse racing and is (unsurprisingly) considered the horse capital of the world. The most famous horse race in the country is the Kentucky Derby and has been running since 1875. An estimated 150,000 people attend the derby each year. The Derby is preceded by the world’s largest fireworks display during an event called “Thunder Over Louisville”.
Kentucky is renowned for many other things, including:
- Bluegrass music, hence why it’s nicknamed the Bluegrass State.
- Kentucky Fried Chicken and Colonel Sanders.
- The messiest sandwich on the planet: the hot brown
- Bourbon. Did you know that 95% of bourbon comes from Kentucky? Apparently, it’s sweeter than bourbon that comes from other places because of the limestone deposits found in the water that naturally filter out the metallic iron flavors. Also, fun fact: There are twice as many bourbon barrels as people in the state. Kentucky takes its production of bourbon very seriously!
- The largest production of coal in the country. The Kentucky coal mines employ nearly 10,000 people.
- The birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. He was born in Hodgenville.
Kentucky is a beautiful state where you can find the Niagara Falls of the South, popularly known as Cumberland Falls. You’ll also discover the largest cave system in the world at Mammoth Caves National Park, and you’ll find the only US city built on top of a meteor crater: Middlesboro.
Beyond its scenic landscapes and unique landmarks lie the reality of the threat of natural disasters, which we’ll discuss in greater depth throughout this article.
What natural disasters does Kentucky have?
Kentucky’s most common natural disasters include floods, severe storms, tornadoes, winter storms, wildfires, tropical storms, landslides, power outages, and earthquakes.
Between 1953 and 2019, Kentucky declared 77 major disasters, of which floods and severe storms happened the most according to FEMA.
Floods are Kentucky’s most frequent and costly natural disaster. Anywhere that it rains, it can flood. And when it comes to the Bluegrass State, it’s not a matter of if, but rather a matter of when.
The state has a history of devastating floods in which entire communities were left completely inundated. Some notable floods were:
- The Ohio River Flood of 1937: Significant amounts of rain fell (19 inches to be exact) between January and early February. Of the 19 inches of water, 15 fell during a period of 12 days. This became Louisville’s wettest month on record. This flood affected nearly all of the state of Kentucky as well as nearby states. The Ohio River crested at 85.44 feet, approximately 70% of Louisville was submerged, one million people were left homeless, the cost of the loss of property was well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and 385 people died as a direct result.
- March Flood of 1997: During this event, the Louisville area flooded again along with a grand majority of the state. Out of Kentucky’s 120 counties, 92 were declared disaster areas. The crest of the river hit 70.47 feet, tens of thousands of people were evacuated and displaced, interstate highways were damaged and closed, and 7 people were killed. The total cost of damages was around $400 million.
If you live in Kentucky or are preparing to move, it would be wise to look into flood preparedness. You can begin by looking at local flood maps to determine your community and property’s risk. Note that erosion and natural events can cause major changes to the topography in short periods of time, therefore it’s a good idea to revisit the flood risk map every few years.
2. Severe Storms
Kentucky is known for having intense storms. A hot and humid climate paves the way for severe weather, such as air-mass thunderstorms, lightning, heavy precipitation, and hail. The peak of thunderstorm season is between April and May, and May is the wettest month.
Kentucky’s average annual rainfall is 47.6 inches, which is above most of the other US states. During the summer months, it rains 29% of the time.
Along with rain, some of the storms in the Bluegrass State are accompanied by hail and lightning. The largest hail report measured 5 inches in diameter!
With respect to lightning-related deaths, Kentucky ranks 15th in the US. Based on data collected by the National Lightning Detection Network, the state had an average of 535,834 lightning strikes per year. That is more than 1,400 a day!
Severe thunderstorms and hail are no joke— they can cause a whole lot of damage. If you’re planning outdoor activities while a storm is in the forecast, make changes to your plans. As the saying goes, “when thunder roars, go indoors.”
Most storms happen within a short span of 30 minutes. Once they’ve passed, you’re typically safe to go out and continue enjoying your day. Read our list of safety tips before the next storm occurs!
Kentucky is located in Hoosier Alley. This is a part of the US that gets substantial amounts of tornadoes. Some sources suggest that because the average number of tornadoes has increased over the past few decades, Tornado Alley is shifting east toward Kentucky. As of now, this is just a speculation but only time will tell if this becomes true.
Kentucky has an average of 21 tornadoes each year. Based on historical data, tornadoes have occurred in the state every month but there’s a higher probability of them occurring between April and May. Spring and summer are the most dangerous times for these natural events because of the heat and moisture.
The Bluegrass State doesn’t have a high risk of violent tornadoes, but they have occurred in the past and are likely to occur in the future. The state has had only one F5 tornado which occurred on April 3, 1974, in Brandenburg. It resulted in 31 deaths. Several other tornadoes touched down on the same day and caused major damage to homes, ripped trees off the ground, and injured people.
The deadliest tornado was rated as an F4. It occurred on March 27, 1890, between the evening hours of 8:00 and 8:30 pm. It caused widespread devastation totaling around $2.5 million (1890 USD). It injured over 200 people and killed between 76 and 120 others.
Tornadoes are not just destructive but they can be deadly. Kentucky’s early warning system is set up to help people know when to take cover during a tornado watch.
Practice safe places to take temporary shelter, whether that is at home, at the grocery store, the gym, or wherever you frequent most. For tornado safety tips, check out our guide!
4. Winter Storms
Winters are cold in the Bluegrass State. It’s common to have days with low temperatures, light snow (although periodic record-high snowfall amounts are possible too), occasional ice storms, and blizzards.
January is the coldest and snowiest month with an average low of 24°F and 3.6 inches of snow. Kentucky has approximately 100 days where the nighttime low reaches temperatures below freezing. The lowest temperature ever recorded in the state was -37°F in Shelbyville on January 19, 1994.
The average annual snowfall is only about 11 inches, making it one of the least snowy states in the US. The northern and eastern parts of the state get the most amount of snowfall.
A rare blizzard took Kentucky by surprise on March 12 and 13, 1993. Between 6 to 30 inches of snow fell from the eastern to southeastern part of the state. This was accompanied by strong winds which created snowdrifts of up to 10 feet.
Another significant winter storm was the North American Ice Storm of January 2009. Many states, including Kentucky, received heavy accumulations of ice.— some places got 2.5 inches of ice and 13 inches of snow. This storm left 2 million people without electricity and caused more than $125 million in damages.
Winter storms can have many repercussions, such as long-term power outages and inhibited transportation, whether through blocked roads and interstate highways, bus and airline cancellations, and the risk of you becoming stranded in your vehicle.
If a winter storm is forecasted, be sure to have a shelter-at-home plan in place with enough food, water, and supplies to stay warm. Limit unnecessary travel until the roads clear up again and carry an emergency kit in your vehicle if you must drive.
The fire danger in Kentucky is generally moderate, however during peak seasons, the state will implement burn bans to reduce the risk. The Bluegrass State has two fire seasons. The fall wildfire season begins October 1 and lasts through December 15. The spring wildfire season begins February 15 and lasts through April 30.
Conditions that make it favorable for fires include low humidity, low precipitation, drought, and warm temperatures. Nearly 48% of the state is covered in forest land— that is, 12.4 million acres!
The fires in Kentucky usually burn close to the ground and don’t kill the entire tree. The areas which are at a higher risk are the forests that have hardwood trees.
The average number of wildland fires is 1,447 per year, and 90% of them are linked to human activity. The primary cause is attributed to arson but other causes include neglect of campfires, careless burning of debris, and farm equipment failure. A challenge Kentucky faces in fighting fires is that they primarily rely on hand crews to put them out.
The worst fire in recent history occurred in 2001 and it burned 178,925 acres. When it comes to preventing fires, it’s important for us to do our part. Do not start a fire during wildfire season and even outside of the seasonal times, be extra careful so that a small fire doesn’t accidentally get out of hand.
Landslides occur all throughout Kentucky, but the risk varies statewide. They happen in the form of debris flows, slumps, rockfalls, mudslides, and mine or land subsidence. There is a high susceptibility along the eastern and central portions of the state and low to moderate susceptibility throughout the rest.
Landslides are more common between the late winter and early spring months when the combination of precipitation and snowmelt is higher than other times of the year. Usually, this is after persistent or intense periods of rainfall when the soil is saturated.
Land slips cost the state between $10 to $20 million per year. There have been over 76,000 documented landslides in Kentucky to date. These events cause significant damage to homes, commercial properties, roads, and infrastructure, as well as interruptions to all basic utilities and transportation.
The first step in becoming prepared for a landslide is to know your risk level. Look for local topography maps to identify vulnerable places. Even if your property is not at risk, your community might be.
Learn alternative roads in case one of them gets destroyed or blocked during a landslide. For mitigation strategies and safety tips, check out our guide on landslide preparedness.
7. Extreme Heat and Drought
Kentucky averages 15 days of dangerous heat per year. And more than 150,000 people in the state are vulnerable to it. The highest temperature recorded in the state was 114°F in Greensburg on July 28, 1930, but that was an exception in history. The average high summer temperature is around 87°F.
During the mid-summer months, it gets hot and humid. During July it’s common to have 8 hours or more of sunshine plus oppressive heat and humidity over 75%.
The Bluegrass State has experienced a few historic heat waves, including the July to August heat wave and drought of 1936. A complete lack of rainfall plus several weeks of extreme heat (well into the 100°Fs) was the cause of it. That may not sound like a lot today, but remember that air conditioning hadn’t yet become commonplace in residential homes.
Another challenge Kentucky faces is periods of drought. According to States At Risk, the state is projected to see a 95% increase in its summer drought index by 2050. As of the writing of this article, only 22.1% of the state is under a D0 warning, which means it’s abnormally dry. Even though drought levels are low at this moment, they could increase in the future if projections are accurate.
One way to become prepared for heat waves is to know how to stay cool during high temperatures. We recommend learning the symptoms of heat illness, not just for your own safety, but also for the sake of others. Our heat wave preparedness guide goes into much more detail on this topic.
8. Power Outages
Every natural disaster presents a risk to our vulnerable electrical systems. For example:
- The Ice Storm of 2009 left millions of people in the dark and the cold. In Kentucky alone, over 607,000 people were affected for up to a week. It was by far one of the worst and largest mass power outages in Kentucky’s state history.
- Hurricane Ike caused another major power outage event. It affected nearly 600,000 people.
Power outages are inconvenient at the least, but for those whose lives depend on it, it can be deadly (I’m specifically talking about those who rely on electronically-powered medical devices and the like, not social media addicts— although they can also expect to lose cable, internet services, and cell phone reception).
Having a plan and the necessary supplies for withstanding long-term outages is critical. In this guide, you can learn everything about which supplies are recommended as well as tips for staying safe in the event of.
Kentucky is one of 16 US states at the highest risk of an earthquake. This is because the western portion of Kentucky lies on the New Madrid Seismic Zone.
Small earthquakes are common but luckily, damaging quakes don’t happen too often. It’s predicted that about four to ten magnitude 7.0 or higher quakes will occur within a 10,000 year period.
The strongest historic quake happened on July 27, 1980, in Sharpsburg in Bath County. It had a magnitude of 5.3. The damage it caused was mainly structural and was estimated to be around $3 million.
If you live in the western portion of the state, it’s recommended that you properly secure items to the wall, especially heirlooms and expensive or heavy items. This can significantly help mitigate any future damage and help protect you and your loved ones from falling debris.
10. Tropical Storms
Kentucky will not get hit by a hurricane directly but it can certainly be affected by the remnants of tropical storms.
Two hurricanes made a significant impact on the Bluegrass State.
- The remnants of Hurricane Ike in 2008 brought damaging winds to western Kentucky. This led to tree damage, downed electrical and communication lines, roof damage (especially to mobile homes), and widespread power outages.
- The remnants of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 affected eastern Kentucky and brought in mostly heavy rainfall.
Tropical storms can be very powerful even in states without coastal boundaries like Kentucky. To become prepared, you should consider the mitigation strategies mentioned in this guide to protect your home from wind and water damage.
Natural disaster resources for Kentucky
There are many disasters that can occur in Kentucky, so it’s crucial to become prepared long before they happen. We’ve gathered a list of some of our favorite resources that you can check out.
- Stay updated will new weather patterns and developing storms with the NOAA Weather App. Download it for free and keep notifications turned on. Of course, if you want to receive these updates in real-time, you’ll have to keep your phone charged and near you.
- Natural disasters are unique. We want to take the overwhelming feeling away from preparedness, so we’ve created simple guides that focus on each disaster type. In our guides, you’ll find suggestions on how to mitigate possible damage from that disaster, as well as tips on how to stay safe before, during, and after. At the end of each guide, you can download a free checklist that can be printed and saved with your emergency kit for future reference. Find all of our disaster guides here.
- Some people love hands-on experiences, myself included. That is why I recommend joining CERT: Community Emergency Response Team. This organization is run by FEMA and it provides free emergency preparedness training to communities throughout the United States. Find your local CERT here.
- A cool way to help in disaster relief is by joining Kentucky's Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). This organization partners with local businesses and organizations to determine ways to meet the immediate needs of the affected communities nearby.
- To find state-based assistance before and after a disaster occurs in your community, check out the Kentucky Emergency Management website.
I hope you liked reading about natural disasters in Kentucky.
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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!