As a child, I always dreamed of going to New York—isn’t that everyone’s dream?!
As a teenager, my wish came true—twice!
The first time I went was during the fall when the climate was temperate but beginning to feel chilly. The second time was towards the end of November, so it was considerably cooler. I got to see all the touristy things in New York City as well as venture out into Upstate NY. I was mesmerized by the countryside, the beauty of Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls, and the autumn colors that spotted the mountains so evenly.
New York has a lot to offer (including the largest and yummiest slice of pizza!), but it also faces some challenges— natural and manmade disasters being two of them. That doesn’t mean it’s not a place worth going to or living in— all the contrary! In this article, I’ll highlight what you can expect to experience in the Empire State.
What natural disasters does New York have?
New York’s most common natural disasters include severe storms, floods, winter storms, tropical storms, wildfires, and blackouts. Other less significant disasters include tornadoes, landslides, droughts, and tsunamis. Between 1953 and 2019, New York declared 96 major disasters, of which severe storms and floods happened the most according to FEMA.
1. Severe Storms
Severe storms can include a combination of weather hazards, such as thunder and lightning, heavy precipitation, high winds, hail, and nor’easters. In New York, thunderstorms can occur any time of year but they happen more often during July and August. New York has a moderate amount of lightning strikes when compared to the rest of the United States, but fun fact: the Empire State Building gets struck approximately 25 times each year! Perhaps that’s not such a fun fact if you’re in the building the moment it gets struck, but it’s interesting that without fail, it gets hit every year.
Hail sometimes accompany thunderstorms, but only a handful of hail storms are reported each year. Nor’Easters affect the coastal areas along the Eastern portion of the US. In the case of New York, the most vulnerable cities are New York City and Long Island because of their high population and proximity to the coast. These severe storms bring in force winds, high tides, and excessive precipitation—either in the form of rain or snow— and occur mostly between September and April, although they can happen at any time if the atmospheric conditions are favorable. The East coast typically gets between 20 and 40 nor’easters each year. Of course, not all of these hit New York, but even one is enough to cause significant damage.
One of the worst nor’easters in recent history began on April 14, 2007, and lasted for four days. Amidst the heavy rainfall, strong winds, and storm surge, the result was catastrophic for much of the affected region. Flights were delayed or canceled, many experienced power outages and coastal and low-lying areas flooded. The storm claimed the lives of at least 18 people and caused an estimated $264 million in damages (not in New York alone, but throughout all the affected states and Canada).
Preparing for severe storms is vital if you're in New York, especially if you live in a metropolitan area where you rely on public transportation as your main method of commute. In order to manage delays, you should consider leaving your house and work a bit earlier than usual, as well as preparing a few extra supplies in your briefcase or purse to keep you warm and dry. Read our complete guide on storm preparedness for safety and mitigation tips!
Floods are one of the several natural disasters that can happen in any part of the world. Both New York’s history provides many accounts of flooding over the past century, both in New York City and upstate New York. Flooding oftentimes occurs during periods of intense precipitation, especially during hurricanes, nor’easters, ice jams, or other severe storms.
Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused catastrophic flooding throughout New York City. Flood events like these are extremely costly and can take a long time to repair, especially being in highly populated areas. Upstate New York has also seen devastating damage after heavy rainfall caused flash floods. A video went viral of a family’s vacation home that was swept away in its entirety down a creek during a flood event. One of the most recent events occurred during October 31st and November 1st, 2019 in the capital city, Albany. The city experienced significant flooding after 7 inches of rain came down in just 6 hours, leaving 300,000 people in the dark and up to $33 million in damages.
In order to prepare for a flood, you should look at flood maps of your areas to determine your risk. You may want to look into flood insurance to protect your property, especially if you’re in a place with significant risk. It only takes one storm and no more than two inches of water to cause significant damage. Floods may prompt evacuation orders, so always have a backpack with all the essential supplies that you may need for a few days while the storm passes and recedes. For information on preparing for a flood, check out our complete guide here!
3. Winter Storms
Winter storms are likely to strike New York anytime between the end of October or early November, all the way through April. On average, New York City and Long Island get an average of 29 inches of snowfall each year, whereas the rest of the state averages more than 70 inches! The snowiest cities in the state are the small town of Old Forge, averaging 165 inches each year, followed by Syracuse, averaging 124 inches annually— that’s a lot of shoveling!!
Snowfall isn’t the only threat to the state of New York. Add hurricane-force winds to the heavy snowfall and you’ll get a blizzard, another disaster that oftentimes affects the eastern part of the United States. One of the worst in New York’s history was the Great Blizzard of 1888, otherwise known as the Great White Hurricane, that occurred on March 12th, 1888 and lasted until March 14th. During this storm, New York City received about 20 inches of snow, while other places that were affected received up to 50 inches, as well as sustained wind speeds of 40 miles per hour with occasional gusts that reached 80 mph. This blizzard claimed the lives of at least 400 people and caused an estimated $25 million in damages, which in today’s time would translate to $700 million. Unfortunately, blizzards are not just events of the past. In January 2016, New York —and much of the Eastern coast— experienced another powerful blizzard that brought devastating winds, heavy snowfall, ice storms, power outages, and travel bans throughout the region. It also caused a tornado outbreak that resulted in six confirmed tornadoes. The blizzard claimed the lives of 55 people and cost an average $500 million to $3 billion in damages.
Freezing rain is also something to be expected throughout the winter season, and an occasional ice storm. One of the worst ice storms happened in March 1991. The North and Western parts of New York were heavily affected as ice-covered homes, roads, and everything in between. This resulted in the complete shut-down of cities and power outages that lasted up to 14 days.
The cities located near lakes in Central and Western NewYork— Buffalo and Rochester for example— experience more snow each year due to lake-effect snow. This meteorological phenomenon occurs when the warm air above a lake becomes mixed with the cold air from the cloud above it, resulting in heavier precipitation and more snowfall near the regions closest to the lake. Lake-effect snow can sometimes be severe, but generally, the cities are well prepared for quick snow removal so life can return to normal.
As you can imagine, becoming prepared for the winter months is a must if you live anywhere in New York. Every year, over a thousand people die due to the cold weather, primarily because of exposure to freezing temperatures which results in hypothermia. Staying warm, whether you’re indoors or outdoors, is of utmost importance. There are many fabrics that are ideal for winter because they remove excess moisture produced by your body, without soaking into your clothes and making you feel wet and cold. Also wear layers when going outdoors to allow the maximum retention of body heat. Remember to carry an emergency kit and chains in your car, in the event that you get stranded and have to wait a while for help to arrive. In this guide, I discuss winter preparedness and survival tips in detail.
4. Tropical Storms and Hurricanes
Hurricane season begins in June and lasts through November each year. While the state is prone to these storms because it lies along the East Coast, only a handful of tropical storms reach New York, and fewer hit the state as a category 1 or higher hurricane. Is it possible for a Category 5 hurricane to reach New York? It’s less likely than other states, like Florida, but it’s not completely impossible. In any case, a lower category hurricane, or even a tropical storm, can bring in devastating effects, as we have seen over time.
The strongest hurricane to hit New York was the New England Hurricane that struck the state on September 21, 1938. This hurricane had previously developed into a Category 5 but made landfall in Long Island as a Category 3. The hurricane lasted until September 23 over land and reached as far as Ontario, Canada. The damage was extensive, causing $306 million in damages (in the dollar currency during that time period) and resulted in up to 800 direct fatalities.
Fast forward to October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy formed and made landfall in three different countries over the course of a few days. The final landfall occurred in New Jersey on October 29th. It extended 900 miles wide and landed with Category 1 wind speeds, which later dissipated inland over the next three days. Hurricane Sandy is considered a hybrid between a hurricane and a nor’easter, because of the nature of the storm is a blend of the two types of storms. Storm surges, flooding, and high winds were major contributors to the damage that was experienced throughout the Northeast. Hurricane Sandy became the costliest natural disaster in New York history, resulting in over $19 billion in damages (in NY alone) and the loss of 44 New Yorkers— an estimated 147 fatalities were recorded overall. After Hurricane Sandy, the sea level rose, causing a change in the flood-risk of coastal and low-lying areas. Storms weaker than Sandy are projected to cause similar flooding to Sandy in the future, however, any strong storm can potentially cause more damage than Sandy left. It’s an estimate at this point, but something to think about if you live in hurricane-prone areas.
Becoming prepared for a tropical storm is necessary if you live in coastal areas. Check out this guide to learn all the risks associated with hurricanes, how to mitigate them, how to stay safe and get ready.
Blackouts, or power outages, have affected New York time and time again. There are many reasons that a power outage can occur. Some of the most common include severe heat, wind, rain, ice, or snowstorms, as well as coastal storms or flash floods. Losing power can affect almost every part of our day-to-day lives. We are so accustomed to brewing a cup of coffee in the morning, taking the subway to work, turning on the heater or A/C unit when the weather is nor pleasant, cooking over the stovetop, and turning on the lights when it’s dark. The lack of electricity is hard to adjust to because we have become so dependent on it. Still, seasonal changes and natural hazards commonly disrupt our power supply, even if temporarily, and we have to be prepared for that.
One of the most notorious blackouts in New York City happened on July 13, 1977, and lasted for up to 26 hours. Several lightning strikes caused transmission failures and roughly 9 million people were affected. This event resulted in massive looting-sprees all over the city. More recently, there was the Northeast Blackout of 2003. As the title clearly suggests, this outage affected much of the Northeastern population for up to two weeks, including over 16 million residents of New York. Finally, how can we forget the Manhattan Blackout of July 2019 when an electric transformer fire left about 73,000 households without power for almost 5 hours.
Long-term blackouts can take a toll on our lives, especially if we rely on electrical equipment for our survival, such as would be the case for those who need oxygen or medical devices constantly powered. If you have a home or apartment with a balcony or outdoor space, I would recommend you invest in a generator. You don’t need to get the biggest generator out there, but get something that will easily power your refrigerator and other small electronic devices. Remember to keep enough gas to power the generator! Other than that, you should have a kit with enough water and food supplies to last you for at least two weeks. When there are long-term power outages, grocery stores may close and pumping gas may become impossible, so you’ll want to have the essentials so you don’t rely on having to go to a store, without the reassurance that they’ll be open or even have enough food. Learn more safety and mitigation tips for power outages here!
Fire needs three things to thrive: heat, oxygen, and fuel. Late summer months and early fall months are considered peak wildfire season because the summer weather causes the trees and shrubs to turn into the perfect tinder. When heat is applied, the tinder has a chance to burn. Heat can either be produced by nature, as is common when bolts of lightning strike surfaces, or can otherwise be caused by humans while burning debris or making bonfires. Finally, oxygen is the boost that keeps the fire alive. Seasons of strong and gusty winds increase the likelihood of fires spreading quickly and make them more destructive.
More than half of New York is covered in forests, making it highly prone to wildfires. The two organizations in the state that record fire reports, the New York State Forest Ranger and the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, process information differently, so there’s a discrepancy when determining the average of wildfires each year. What the data agree on is that some of the most destructive fires have occurred in New York City and Long Island. On average, the cause of the majority of fires in the state is linked to being 95% human activity and only 5% nature (lightning strikes). Fire prevention methods help mitigate the damage caused by fires, but practicing control over debris burns and campfires is another thing to consider. The state has also implemented bans on burning brush from March 15th until May 15th because a large percentage of fires occur during that time.
It’s important to be prepared for a wildfire in your city, whether that’s by preparing a backpack with your evacuation essentials as well as by keeping a kit stored in your car in case you can’t make it home to grab your belongings. Wildfires can spread quickly within a matter of minutes. Have fire drills in your home, in case (God forbid) that you experience a fire at home. Also make a family action plan to act quickly during an emergency. Learn more wildfire mitigation and safety tips here!
Tornadoes are relatively rare in New York, but not entirely uncommon. Approximately 9 tornadoes are detected in the state every year. Since the 1950s, the year when tornado activity officially became recorded, New York has seen over 400 tornadoes in which 12 of those have caused fatalities. The majority of tornadoes that affect New York are categorized as EF-1 or lower, although a few EF-2’s have also been recorded. EF-3 and EF-4 tornadoes have also hit the state, but those are few and far between.
New York City is not immune from twisters. One of the worst tornadoes to affect this region occurred on August 8, 2007, in Brooklyn. The event only lasted about 18 minutes and brought $20 million worth of damage to 100 vehicles and 40 structures. Luckily, the reported injuries were neither serious nor deadly. In any case, many of the people who received warnings throughout the NYC, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island region did not pay much attention to the alert. If another warning is sent out in the future, take it seriously because the National Weather Service (NWS) wouldn’t alert the public if they didn’t find it to be a threat to your safety.
A tornado can develop quickly, so oftentimes an alert only gives you 15 minutes or less to find shelter. If you don’t know where to take cover, go to an interior room of a building, away from windows, doors, and any other vulnerable openings like garages. Remain in your place of shelter until the warning signal is cleared by public officials or the NWS. Here are a few more tornado safety tips in case you need them!
Landslides can occur in places where there are slopes and vulnerable soil or erosion. New York’s mountainous topography makes it a prime location for the possibility of landslides, in those regions specifically. This Landslide Hazard Profile from the New York Homeland Security and Emergency Services provides information on the landslide risk level in all parts of the state. According to the same report, two major landslides, and several smaller ones can be expected in New York each year.
Keene Valley, otherwise known as Home of the High Peaks, is one of the locations where the largest landslide in the state’s history is being monitored. Many scientists are looking into the 82 acres of land that are significantly moving in unison, thereby prompting a massive landslide warning to all the nearby homeowners.
Being prepared for a landslide begins with knowing your risk. Look at the resource above to determine whether you’re in a high or low-risk zone. Then, you can determine which mitigation procedures to look into, as well as learn safety measures to prevent possible injury.
Droughts are not too common in New York, however, there have been a few significantly dry episodes where the government urged the public to conserve water. One of the worst periods of drought in New York’s recent history occurred in 2016 during the second week of September. For a brief moment, almost 10% of the state suffered from extreme drought, resulting in widespread water shortages. You can check out the current drought monitor for NY right here.
Natural disaster resources for New York
After I’ve presented you with some of the worst-case scenarios and natural disaster expectations for New York, you may be wondering what to do next. Hopefully, your mindset is geared towards preparedness! If so, here are a few resources that can help you along in the process.
- Download the NOAA Weather App on your phone. This is a great way to stay in the loop with developing storms and other weather-related disasters that you may be at risk of.
- Knowing your main threats are the basic stepping stone to determining what to prepare for. Each disaster presents different challenges, so make sure to learn the unique ways you can mitigate every type. I have written several comprehensive guides for your convenience. None of these are long enough to overwhelm you, but they provide vital information that can serve you now and for years to come. Each guide comes with a free checklist that you can print and keep with your emergency supplies for easy reference in the future. Find all the guides to all disaster types here!
- Learning preparedness skills in a hands-on environment is also highly encouraged. With the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), you can obtain free trainings on emergency prep and meet like-minded individuals in your area. It’s a great way to connect with your neighbors and learn how to take care of yourself and others should a disaster strike near you. Find your local CERT group here!
- If you’re an entrepreneur or are part of an organization that can provide resources to those in need post-disaster, then you should get in touch with New York’s VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This organization is a team of volunteers that gathers information on what the community can provide when there is an emergency in your state. After something occurs, the NY VOAD will get in touch with you if your services are needed at that time. It’s a great way to give back!
- If you need more help during any phase of the preparedness process, whether it be planning or recovery, you can get in touch with New York’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. They have lots of resources available, all of which can be found on their website!
I hope this article has helped you determine which disasters are likely in your state and how to prepare for them! It’s always better to be prepared than sorry, so don’t wait until something happens to realize your vulnerability. Be ready now and when something occurs, you’ll have a better perspective and resources to overcome the challenges you may be faced with.
Did you enjoy this article? Share it with your loved ones!