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

What disasters happen in Massachusetts

Bay Staters are passionate people who are proud to call Massachusetts home. The state’s culture, delicious cuisine, top-notch beaches, and colorful autumn leaves make this a beautiful state to both visit and live in.

Massachusetts is notorious for several culinary specialties, including lobster rolls and New England Clam Chowder. [P.S. Never request tomatoes on your clam chowder. Not only will the locals look down on you, but it’s also illegal.]

The Bay State is also home to the first Dunkin' Donuts, or as Bay Staters call it, Dunks or Dunkin’.

You’ll know if you meet a Bay Stater if they have memorized the lyrics to Sweet Caroline, they’re a die-hard sports fan, and they’re spending their summer at the Cape.

Massachusetts has four distinct seasons with warm summers and cold snowy winters.

Autumn is one of the best seasons in which the dense forests paint a beautiful landscape as the maple and oak trees change colors.

Natural disasters affect Massachusetts like any other state, but the locals are used to the winter and snow is generally no issue. Apart from the occasional blizzard, many take advantage of winter activities like sledding.


What natural disasters does Massachusetts have?


Massachusetts’ most common natural disasters include severe storms, hurricanes, winter storms, floods, wildfires, landslides, power outages, and tsunamis. Other less common natural events include tornadoes and earthquakes.

Between 1953 and 2019, Massachusetts declared 49 major disasters, of which severe storms and hurricanes happened the most according to FEMA.


1. Severe Storms

Massachusetts has approximately 30 thunderstorms per year, most of which occur during the late spring to summer months. Its average annual rainfall ranges from 40 to 50 inches depending on the location. 

It’s common for thunderstorms to bring lightning and occasionally hail as well. The Bay State ranks 33rd among all US states in terms of lightning-related fatalities. Between 1959 and 2016, there were 32 deaths reported. When it comes to hail, some people have captured photos of hail that is more than 2 inches in diameter.

During the storm-prone months, pay close attention to the weather forecast and be sure to postpone outdoor activities to prevent getting stuck in the storm. If lightning or hail is present, take shelter inside a sturdy building and avoid getting close to exterior windows, since lightning can strike people if they're indoors too. Read our guide on how to stay safe during thunderstorms here.


2. Tropical Storms and Hurricanes

The Bay State has experienced its fair share of tropical storms and hurricanes, not to mention residual storm damage. Only 10 hurricanes have made landfall on the state since 1851, and all of them were a category 3 or lower. Still, the effects of hurricanes that have made landfall on nearby states are sometimes equally destructive for Massachusetts.

One of the worst hurricanes to affect the state was the Great New England Hurricane of September 1938. This category 5 hurricane had sustained wind speeds between 121 and 160 mph, with gusts of up to 186mph. It caused an unbelievable amount of damage, including flooding due to the coastal surge, the destruction of nearly 9,000 buildings and private property, approximately 1,700 injuries, and between 564 and 800 deaths. The cost of damages averaged $306 million dollars (1938 USD).

Once a tropical storm or hurricane is predicted, it's time to put your emergency plan into action. You should begin by gathering all the necessary supplies if you're planning to evacuate. Use storm shutters or plywood to cover your windows and other vulnerable doors (like garage doors). You can find our suggestions for mitigating hurricane damage here.


3. Winter Storms

Massachusetts ranks 8th highest among the United States in terms of the average amount of snowfall per year. Freezing temperatures, blizzards, ice storms, and nor’easters are likely to happen between the end of November through mid-March or early April.

The Bay State has had a few notable winter storms, including:

  • The Southern New England Ice Storm of December 1973. This storm caused a lot of damage to trees and power lines due to the weight of the ice. It left 100,000 homes without electricity.

  • The Blizzard of January 2015. This blizzard affected the eastern part of the state more than the west. It brought snowfall accumulations between 24 to 36 inches and wind gusts of up to 58 mph.

  • The Blizzard of February 1978. This blizzard dropped significant amounts of snow to many parts of the state in a matter of three days. It also brought wind speeds of 86 mph and killed 100 people. The cost of damages was estimated to be around $520 million USD.

If you spend a lot of time on the road, especially during the late fall and winter months, it's recommended that you have an emergency car kit equipped with all the winter essentials, such as chains, emergency blankets, roadside signals, hand warmers, and a pair of winter clothes. Avoid nonessential travel during blizzards and dangerous snowstorms. Those days are best spent sheltering in place.

Consider the possibility of power outages during periods of heavy snowfall and ice. Be sure to keep an emergency shelter-at-home kit with the necessary supplies to prepare meals and stay warm without electricity. For more information on preparing for winter storms, check out this complete guide.


4. Floods

Precipitation of any kind increases the risk of flooding. November and December are the wettest months in Massachusetts, however, periods of heavy rainfall also occur during tropical storms, hurricanes, and thunderstorms.

Flood maps, like this one, show the risk level for all counties throughout Massachusetts. Low-lying regions, homes near rivers, and coastal areas are subject to a higher risk level due to lack of drainage and storm surges.

One of the worst floods in the Bay State’s history was the Springfield flood of March 1936. The Connecticut River rose beyond the precedented levels and flooded Springfield to the point that people had to use canoes to get around the streets. Dams and levees broke and caused a major water surge to the nearby communities. This flood event left 50,000 Massachusetts residents homeless and killed 10.

Begin your flood preparedness plans by determining your risk. You can find an estimated risk level by looking at FEMA's flood maps and inputting your address. Remember that the earth's constant changes, both manmade and by natural disasters, may alter your risk levels. For instance, a region with a low risk today may see increased risk within the next decade.

Once you've determined your risk, implement mitigation strategies to prevent your home from flooding. You can find many suggestions here!


5. Wildfires 

Nearly 61% of Massachusetts’s territory is forest land. When Native American tribes cultivated the land, they would burn it periodically to cultivate it and encourage the growth of some plant species but when the US took over, it classified fires as a dangerous activity and suppressed it. Over time, this has led to an overgrowth of trees, plants, dry shrubbery, and therefore increased the likelihood of devastating wildfires.

While wildfires don’t happen in Massachusetts as often as in other states like California, the risk is present regardless. The Leverett Blaze was one of two blazes in 2020 that lasted for nearly a month before firefighters were able to put it out completely. In 2020 alone, there were upwards of 800 fires state-wide.

Many fires are linked to the weather (especially long periods of drought and lightning strikes) and human activity (specifically bonfire neglect and the use of fireworks).

Wildfires can be very aggressive and fast-moving. The best way to prepare for one is to create defensible space within your property and have an evacuation plan. In this guide, we highlight several mitigation ideas you can implement to protect your home, and in this guide, we give you the step-by-step process of creating a 5-minute, 1-hour, and 1-day evacuation plan.


6. Landslides

The major causes of landslides in Massachusetts are linked to ground saturation and weak slope stability. The Massachusetts Hazard Mitigation Plan states that landslides in Massachusetts can be divided into four general groups, construction related, over steepened slopes caused by undercutting due to flooding or wave action, adverse geologic conditions, and slope saturation.

Slope saturation is related to events of heavy precipitation and the ground not being able to absorb it fast enough, therefore resulting in mudslides or landslips.

Some of the landslides that have occurred in recent history include sections of Route 2 that were wiped out or eroded after Hurricane Irene in August 2011, and landslips shortly thereafter that affected railroads and Routes 5 and 10 after a snowstorm on October 31, 2011.

Just like floods, you need to determine your home’s landslide risk in order to properly prepare for it. Note that precipitation, erosion, and other natural factors constantly change the geography of a region, as well as the risk level of certain areas. Your home may not be at risk right now but could be at risk in the next ten or twenty years. Evaluate and reevaluate this after seasons of significant topographical change.

There are many clever ways to retrofit your home and protect your yard to prevent landslides, but note that a powerful mudslide may take the path of least resistance. If your home just so happens to be in that path, you’ll be in trouble. At this point, your life is the most important thing to consider.

Be sure to learn the crackling sounds that are associated with approaching landslips and if you suspect a slide, find higher ground immediately. Find more landslide tips here!


7. Power Outages

Our electric grid is prone to outages anytime there is a natural disaster or manmade error. While most outages in Massachusetts last only a few short hours at a time, the risk of long-term outages is always present.

One of the longest outages to affect the Bay State was the Northeastern Blackout of November 1965. A maintenance malfunction left eight US Northeastern states and two Canadian provinces in the dark for up to 13 hours— that’s nearly 30 million people! This event left thousands of people stuck in their offices as well as the train, metro, and airplanes— some people had to direct traffic with flashlights, while others had no choice but to walk home in the cold. That event lives in history and many people will remember it forever.

One of the best ways to prepare for a power outage is to go without. In other words, you should spend a day or two without electricity (by turning off your own power) and use your emergency kit as well as any other items you have on hand to "survive" for a minimum of 24 consecutive hours (48 is ideal if you can do that).

During that time, you will be able to identify any flaws in your plan, or possibly which items you have that don't work as well as you hoped they would. Then, you can polish your plan for when an actual power outage happens. Turn this into a fun activity with your family! Learn more power outage preparedness tips here!


8. Coastal Storms

Massachusetts boasts nearly 1,500 miles of coastline and 34 islands and peninsulas. Due to its location, it’s without question that it’s prone to coastal storms. As before mentioned, hurricanes, nor’easters, and storm surges are likely, but research suggests that tsunamis are also possible.

Tsunamis could be triggered by earthquakes and coastal or submarine landslides, but no such event has affected the region in recent history. In fact, some sources claim that a significant tsunami would happen only if an earthquake magnitude 7 or higher were to occur. This is highly unlikely for Massachusetts but seismologists affirm that Boston is the city in New England with the highest risk.

If you live near the coast of Massachusetts, know the signs of tsunamis and nor'easters and learn where you can go to find higher ground. Because of the probability of a storm surge, prepare for coastal flooding too.

Pay close attention to warning signs that say “Wicked High Tides.” Wicked is the most extreme adjective/ adverb Bay Staters use to describe something…so learn the local lingo and stay away from coastal areas when you see that sign. Learn how to stay safe during coastal storms here.


9. Tornadoes

Massachusetts averages three or fewer tornadoes annually. Most of these are weak (EF0 to EF1), however stronger tornadoes are possible. The western part of the state gets the most tornado activity, specifically Worcester County and the region bordering Connecticut and New York. Tornadoes in the region of New England are more common in the summer (June through August).

The deadliest tornado to affect the Bay State occurred on the afternoon of June 9, 1953. The F4 tornado traveled almost 35 miles across Central Massachusetts, destroying approximately 4,000 buildings, injuring around 1,300 people, killing 94, and causing an overall $52 million (1953 USD) worth of damages.

One of the worst tornado outbreaks in recent history occurred on June 1, 2011. A series of 6 confirmed tornadoes tore through Massachusetts and southern Maine. The strongest one was an EF3 with wind speeds reaching as high as 160 mph. The tornado resulted in 3 deaths and over $227 million (2011 USD) in damages.

Even though tornadoes are not Massachusetts’s most common natural disaster, there is undoubtedly a risk. To learn about becoming prepared for a tornado, check out this guide.


10. Earthquakes

The Bay State has a mild risk of earthquakes. The Clinton-Newbury fault zone is about 97 miles long and runs from east to west, then south into Connecticut.

Soft earthquakes have rattled the region in recent years but the strongest one on record dates back to 1755. The Cape Ann earthquake occurred on November 18, 1755, and it had a magnitude between 6.0 to 6.3.

In recent years, there have been a few earthquakes between 3.6 to 4.2 in magnitude, with no reports of serious damages or injuries.

Prepare for an earthquake by having earthquake drills at home. Identify safe places within your home to take shelter as well as which items should be secured to the wall, such as paintings and TVs. Prepare a kit with all the supplies you need should you have to evacuate. For our complete guide on earthquake preparedness, check out this article.


Natural disaster resources for Massachusetts


Even though Massachusetts is prone to several types of natural disasters, there are lots of resources available to help you become prepared and get through them. 

  • The NOAA weather app is one of the best options if you want to stay in the loop with developing storms and weather alerts. Make sure to enable notifications and keep your phone charged so you never miss an update.

  • While all disasters can be destructive, preparing for each type requires different mitigation strategies, and in some cases, different supplies. We've done the work for you and have put together 14 unique guides for each disaster type (including pandemics and civil unrest). Be sure to check out all of the guides here and download the checklists at the end. We encourage you to print and keep them with your emergency kit for future reference.

  • Reading guides on how to prepare for emergencies is great, but it's equally important to put your knowledge to work. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is an ideal organization for those who want hands-on experience. CERT is government-funded and its courses are free for the community. After you're trained through them, you will receive more than experience, but more importantly, you'll walk away having met and connected with some of your neighbors who are interested in the same topic. Find your local CERT club here!

  • If you're looking to volunteer in post-disaster relief within Massachusetts, you can look into VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This group is made up of local organizations that are able to provide supplies or resources in a time of need. After a disaster occurs, the VOAD team identifies the community's needs and reaches out to the organizations that may be able to provide support during that time.

  • To find more information on recovering from disasters in Massachusetts, check out MEMA: Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

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

Be sure to share this article with someone who you think may enjoy it too!

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