Minnesota was the 32nd state to join the union and was named after the Dakota Indian words “minni” meaning water and “sotah” meaning sky-tinted. Therefore, the state name means sky-tinted waters.
Minnesota is nicknamed the North Star State and Land of the 10,000 Lakes. In reality, however, the state boasts over 11,842 lakes larger than 10 acres, as well as 69,200 miles of streams and rivers, and thousands of wildlife, fish, and farm animals.
The North Star State is famous for its natural beauty and landscapes, historical sites, attractions, heritage festivals, several top-notch museums, and is the home of many Fortune 500 companies.
Minnesota experiences all four seasons with its diverse climate, as well as its fair share of natural disasters.
What natural disasters does Minnesota have?
Minnesota’s most common natural disasters include floods, severe storms, tornadoes, wildfires, winter storms, heat waves, power outages, and landslides. Another less significant disaster includes earthquakes.
Between 1953 and 2019, Minnesota declared 63 major disasters, of which floods and severe storms happened the most according to FEMA.
General flooding and flash floods are major natural disaster threats in Minnesota. Floods are caused by spring snowmelt and periods of consistent rainfall that cause the rivers to swell. Flash floods occur as a result of intense localized rain which overwhelms storm drainage systems and streams.
Minnesota has experienced many significant floods, such as:
- The Flood of April 1965: During this flood, the entire stretch of the Mississippi River rose to historically high water levels— which was only surpassed by the April-May 2002 floods. It resulted in damage across five states (including Minnesota), over 11,000 homes destroyed, thousands of acres of farmland inundated, at least 700 injuries, 15 deaths, and more than $160 million (1965 USD) in damages.
- The Flood of July 1978: During this event, 13 counties in Southeast Minnesota were declared disaster areas, 5 people died as a direct result, and damages exceeded $100 million.
- The Flood of July 1987: More than 20 inches of rain fell in the Twin Cities during the course of four days. The floodwater got so high (8 feet in some places) that it covered the rooftops of cars, motorists abandoned their vehicles in search of higher ground, a railroad bridge was completely washed out, thousands of homes were damaged, and at least two people died.
- The Flood of August 2007: Over 17 inches of rain fell over southeastern Minnesota, causing a major flash flood that resulted in 7 fatalities and over $179 million in damages in Minnesota alone. The floods extended across 6 states in the Midwest, killing 14 people in total, and causing over $549 million in damages.
Floods are dangerous. Even when floodwaters seem to be low, they carry enough strength to knock people off their feet, sweep vehicles away, and cause structural damage.
For your safety, it’s important to steer clear of floodwaters and never attempt to cross them. Also, remember that they are typically contaminated with sewage and debris. Check out this guide to learn more about flood safety tips and mitigation strategies.
2. Severe Storms
Thunderstorms can occur any time of year in Minnesota, however, they’re more common between March to November and during the afternoon to evening hours. Severe storms usually bring is heavy localized rainfall, thunder and lightning, strong gusty winds, and sometimes hail.
On average, the North Star State receives 18 inches of annual precipitation in the far northwest and more than 32 inches in the southeast. Its largest hail stone was recorded at 6 inches in diameter.
One of the worst storms in the state’s history was the wind storm of September 2011 when winds of up to 121 miles per hour blew near the small town of Donaldson for a period of 10 minutes. This storm caused damage to homes, grain bins, and trees.
The severity of thunderstorms should not be underestimated. Minnesota ranks 29th nationwide in terms of lightning-related fatalities. And each year, there is an average of 386,131 cloud-to-ground strikes. When thunder roars, go indoors! Lightning can strike miles beyond the radius of the storm, so the safest place to be is inside a strong structure, not outdoors.
It’s recommended that those who live in a mobile home go to a more permanent structure if strong winds are forecasted. To learn how to stay safe during a severe storm and how to mitigate damage, check out this guide.
While the boundaries of Tornado Alley are not clearly defined, Minnesota sometimes is included in it. Minnesota averages 45 tornadoes annually. They have occurred every month between March through November, however statistically, June is the month with the greatest frequency, followed by July, May, and August. Tornadoes can occur any time throughout the day, however, they’re most common between the hours of 2:00 PM and 9:00 PM local time.
June 10, 2010, marks the most active tornado day in the history of the North Star State. On that day, 48 tornadoes (nineteen EF0, eighteen EF1, four EF2, four EF3, and three EF4) tore through 22 counties across Minnesota. The damages were extensive, including uprooted and snapped trees, tossed boats, docks, and vehicles, significant damage to homes, and three deaths.
Residents of Minnesota should prepare for future tornado events by having an emergency plan in place. Determine safe locations to take shelter until the tornado dissipates, and have supplies on hand to tend to basic needs.
Minnesota averages 1,500 wildfires annually, however, in recent years that number has almost doubled. An estimated 98% of fires are linked to human activity, such as careless burning of debris, equipment malfunction, vehicle issues, smoking, campfires, and arson. The remainder 2% is linked to lightning.
One of the worst fires in the North Star State’s history was the Cloquet-Moose Lake fire that occurred in the northern region in October 1918. In as little as 15 hours, over 250,000 acres of forestland burned down, over 52,000 people were injured, and 453 people died. The cause was linked to sparks from the train. This was the deadliest natural disaster in Minnesota’s history.
The fact that so many fires are human-caused should inspire us to be more cautious, as we play a major role in preventing them from occurring. A huge rise in the state’s number of fires has been linked to automobile incidents. Therefore if you’re driving and need to pull over along the highway, do so in an area that does not have dry grass or vegetation. The heat from the exhaust can ignite it quickly.
To protect yourself and your home from the threat of wildfires, there are mitigation steps you can take. In this guide, we go through each step as well as discuss safety tips to keep in mind for the future.
5. Winter Storms
Winter precipitation in Minnesota includes snowfall, freezing rain, sleet, ice, and occasionally blizzards and rain. Even though the majority of snow falls between November and early April, there have been snowstorms recorded during every month of the year with the exception of July.
Minnesota averages 110 days a year with at least 2.5 centimeters of snow cover. The snowiest parts of the state include the Lake Superior highlands and a ridge of higher terrain located along the North Shore. The coldest temperature ever recorded in the state was -60 °F on February 2, 1996, in Tower.
One of the worst blizzards in the state’s history was the Armistice Day Blizzard of November 1940. This storm brought in winds between 50 to 80 mph, snowdrifts of up to 20 feet, temperature drops of 50°F, a combination of heavy snow and rain, and a tornado. Hunters were improperly dressed and many became stranded on the Mississippi River Islands while others drowned trying to reach the shore. The death toll reached 154, however, only 49 of those were in Minnesota. Over a million and a half turkeys also died from exposure to the cold.
The weather patterns can change quickly, so it’s crucial to be prepared during the winter season. If you drive often, you should have extra emergency supplies in your vehicle to keep you hydrated, fed, warm, and dry.
Read our winter preparedness guide to learn which items we recommend. After significant snowstorms, remove excess snow from your roof to prevent it from accumulating and collapsing.
6. Heat Waves & Drought
Although less common than other disasters in the state, Minnesota experiences summer heat waves and occasional periods of drought. Heat waves are common towards the end of June and well into the end of August. July is the hottest month of the year with many days of 90°F weather. Summer brings in oppressing humidity, which isn’t present during the spring months, making the heat less tolerable during that season.
The southern part of the state is warmer and more humid, compared to the northern part which is cooler and drier. Currently, an estimated 110,000 residents are vulnerable to extreme heat.
The longest heat wave in recent history occurred between June 3 and 11, 2021 when hot and muggy weather dominated for what seemed like days on end, much too early in the season.
The worst drought the Minnesota has had to endure lasted 146 weeks, beginning on August 30, 2011, and ending on June 10, 2014. As of the writing of this article, 13.8% of the state is under severe drought conditions, 61% of the state is under moderate drought conditions, and 39% is abnormally dry.
One of the primary issues when it comes to heat waves is your health. Oftentimes, electrical companies will become overloaded with the high demand, leading to controlled or sustained power outages. Other times, your body may become affected with heat illness, which if not properly addressed, can lead to long-lasting health issues or even death.
7. Power Outages
Based on power outage data, Minnesota residents experience blackouts that last an average of 3 hours per year.
This number is relatively low, when compared to other states, however, the truth remains that our nation’s power plants are vulnerable and electricity is a luxury. Therefore, we should be prepared for long-lasting or rolling outages especially when faced with extreme weather events.
One of the longest outages in the North Star State’s history occurred on June 25, 1998, when lightning struck a power line twice. The transmission failure took a long time to fix and many people were left without electricity for up to 19 hours.
Disasters can be difficult to navigate through, but how about the added side-effect of power outages? In a world of unpredictability, it would be wise to prepare for long-term disruptions to our electricity.
You can do this by storing the right equipment in your emergency kit (click here to view our suggestions) and by practicing your family plan. One of the best ways to practice your power outage plan would be to go a day without electricity.
Choose a day to turn off the power in your home for at least 24 consecutive hours. Then, use the supplies in your kit and whatever else you have on hand at home.
After this simulation, you can determine which items worked best for you, which items you may need, and how to adjust your plan as a whole. Learn more about power outage preparedness here.
Minnesota has a moderate susceptibility and low incidence of landslides, however, the southeastern region is at a higher risk. The Red River Valley experiences a threat mainly because it lies above weak clay soils that fail frequently, therefore undermining the roads and homes built above it.
Landslides are mainly caused by bluff erosion, slope failure, significant rainfall, soil saturation, shifts in the ground, rockfalls, and building too close to the edges of cliffs.
Scientists are finding that more landslides are occurring state-wide, however, the investigation is ongoing regarding where the threat is highest as well as the best possible way to mitigate effects.
One of the worst landslide events in the history of Minnesota occurred in June 2012 after a two-day rain in Duluth. This led to hundreds of landslides which permanently damaged and altered the landscape of Jay Cooke State Park.
In order to prepare for a landslide, you should first determine your level of risk, as well as your community’s. Then, determine which mitigation strategies will work best to secure your property.
Learn alternative routes within your city if there is a threat of roads getting obstructed or being washed out. Finally, have an evacuation plan and know how to get to safety if a landslide is forecasted or occurring. Check out this guide for a complete list of ideas and tips.
Even though the Great Lakes Tectonic Zone runs through Minnesota, earthquakes are extremely rare in the state. This fault zone runs from Big Stone County and Traverse County to Duluth. The strongest quakes to occur were the Staples earthquake of 1917 with a magnitude of 4.3 and the Morris quake of 1975 with a magnitude of 4.6.
Since 1860, only 20 small to moderate earthquakes have been recorded in the state. I think it’s safe to say that this is not Minnesota’s greatest threat.
Natural disaster resources for Minnesota
Minnesota is vulnerable to different types of natural disasters, so it’s recommended that you become prepared well ahead of time. The following resources are a great place to start!
- The NOAA Weather App is one of the apps we recommend downloading if you want to stay up to date with developing storms and hazardous weather. A huge benefit, apart from receiving real-time alerts, is that the app is free!
- Don’t be overwhelmed by the disasters you saw listed on this page. Look at it in a positive light now that you’re aware of what you may be confronted with in the future. Your next step in preparing for any of those disasters is to know which items you need to keep in your emergency kit, ways to safeguard your home and prevent damage to your property, and how to stay safe. That’s a lot of information, we know! For this reason, we’ve created unique guides for each disaster type. There’s a free printable checklist at the end so be sure to take advantage of that. Find all of our disaster guides here.
- Having knowledge of emergency preparedness is very important as we know, but the experience of having to overcome a disaster is never going to match exactly what you may have learned on paper. That is why getting hands-on experience with preparedness can be a vital resource for you. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) does just that! Their free classes and disaster simulations are taught by law enforcement from your community and are beneficial in helping you become better prepared. Find your local CERT here.
- Disasters are destructive, and sadly, some communities are affected worse than others. If you are interested in becoming part of the remedy and helping others recover after disasters, consider joining Minnesota’s Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). This organization teams up with local businesses and smaller organizations to meet the immediate needs of the local community. It’s rewarding to be a part of the solution, and surely, your neighboring communities will be grateful.
- The Minnesota Department of Public Safety: Homeland Security and Emergency Management Office may be able to provide you with state-based assistance in the aftermath of disasters. Check out their website here.
I hope you enjoyed learning about natural disasters in Minnesota.
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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!