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

Natural disasters in Pennsylvania

The first time I traveled to Pennsylvania, it was love at first sight. It was the peak of the fall season and the mountains were spotted in an even splash of green, yellow, orange, and red leaves. Being from the west coast, I grew up surrounded by palm trees and pine trees. The beauty of the Pennsylvania mountains impacted me! That, and the cheesesteak! 😉 

I have since returned to the Keystone State and have thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the cultural and historical history that is so vibrant there. 

Just like all the other states, Pennsylvania is prone to several disasters. But the roots that are so deeply rooted there are proof that it’s a resilient place. 


What natural disasters does Pennsylvania have?


Pennsylvania’s most common natural disasters include floods, severe storms, tropical storms, winter storms, tornadoes, landslides, wildfires, and power outages. Another disaster that is of a much smaller threat is earthquakes. Between 1953 and 2019, Pennsylvania declared 60 major disasters, of which floods and severe storms happened the most according to FEMA.


1. Floods

Heavy precipitation, overflowing rivers, ice jams, rapid snowmelt, and dam failure are some of the main causes of flooding. Intense rainfall is also a trigger for flash floods, especially when the ground becomes saturated. Roughly one in every 4 or 5 dams throughout Pennsylvania is in poor condition because of a lack of upkeep and maintenance. At this moment, there are an estimated 740 dams that are deemed to be a “high hazard” with the potential to cause mass destruction and casualties. Based on a map of flooding events in each county, the entire state is vulnerable to floods but the West has been impacted more.   

Low-lying areas, and regions near rivers, are at a higher risk of flooding. The Susquehanna River experiences a major flood every 15 years or so, however, the Susquehanna Basin is at risk of flash floods each year. One of the worst floods in Pennsylvania’s history was the Johnstown Flood, otherwise known as the Great Flood of 1889. Heavy rainfall added too much pressure to the South Fork Dam, causing it to rupture and releasing 3.84 gallons of water. This sent mass quantities of water to rush downstream at high speeds. The losses included widespread flooding, the destruction of more than 1,600 structures, and the loss of 2,209 individuals within Johnstown alone and over 30,000 individuals overall. 

In order to be prepared for a flood, you should learn what your home and community’s flood risk is. You should also discuss an evacuation plan with your family and think about putting it into action if you feel that your home may be in danger of becoming flooded. Learn the different evacuation routes in your community, because some roads may become impassable or damaged if the water levels got too high. If significant amounts of rain are in the forecast, you should revise your family plan and decide what to do from there. For information on planning for a flood, check out this comprehensive guide


2. Severe Storms

Severe storms are one of the leading natural disasters in Pennsylvania. Severe storms can mean that thunderstorms, lightning, hail, and high winds are being forecasted. In a nation-wide study, Pennsylvania ranked among the highest in terms of deaths caused by lightning. Lightning can also cause fires if the conditions are favorable for the development of a wildfire, as well as damage to structures and vehicles. Heavy periods of rain, as mentioned earlier, contribute to overflowing rivers and flooding. It’s also not uncommon to see hail during a severe storm. The largest hailstone recorded in Pennsylvania was the size of an adult’s palm! Hail of any size can cause a lot of damage, but imagine what something this size could do! 

Severe storms can cause major damage and endanger life if we’re not careful. When a thunderstorm is on the horizon, rather than standing outside looking for lightning (which I agree is fun to do, but dangerous!) go indoors until the storm passes. If you’re enjoying a day outdoors or at the park and have no safe structure to take temporary refuge in, wait in your car— just make sure you’re not touching the electronics or plugging anything into the outlet to prevent electric shock. Lightning can strike up to 10 miles away, so if the storm seems to be far, you might still be at risk. Check in with the local weather report and resume outdoor activities when they give the all-clear. Find more information on severe storm preparedness here. 


3. Tropical Storms 

Hurricanes primarily affect the coastal areas, so they wouldn’t directly affect Pennsylvania, however, the state is close enough to the coast that it will receive the residual wind and rain from hurricanes. By the time they reach Pennsylvania, they’re typically downgraded to a tropical storm or depression status because of their windspeed. Even though these storms don’t touch base in Pennsylvania in their full capacity, like they do when they make landfall at the coast, they still carry a huge potential to bring about widespread destruction, including downed trees, power outages, floods, landslides, damage from strong winds, and possibly fatalities. 

Many hurricanes have caused significant damage to the state, such as Hurricane Agnes is 1972 which caused 50 casualties and $2 billion worth of damage just in Pennsylvania, Hurricane Irene in 2011 which caused 5 casualties and $14.2 billion in damages, Tropical Storm Lee which caused 7 casualties and nearly $2 billion in damages, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 which caused 159 casualties and $71.5 billion in damages. The weather’s historical record shows what may be possible for the future. As hurricanes have plowed through cities in the past, they are likely to do so again in the future.

If a tropical storm is forecasted, I recommend boarding up the exterior windows or using storm shutters to prevent damage from the high winds. If ordered to evacuate, you should do so. Otherwise, shelter in place. Make sure to keep enough food, water, and emergency supplies stockpiled at home to ride out the storm. Brace yourself for long-term power outages. Outages are common during severe weather, but there’s no guarantee that it will be restored in a timely fashion. The longer you prepare for, the better it will be for you. If you’d like to learn more about becoming ready for tropical storms, you can find lots of information here. 


4. Winter Storms

The western and eastern parts of Pennsylvania experience different winter weather patterns. The territory to the west of the Appalachian Mountains is a lot colder, rainier, and snowier than the east. While the state averages 23” of snowfall per year, the Northwestern region closest to Lake Erie receives up to 100” of snow. This could have a lot to do with lake-effect snow that occurs on the coastlines near the Great Lakes. In Pennsylvania, you should expect snowstorms that turn into blizzards (the only difference between the two is the increase in wind-speeds), freezing rain, ice storms, and the like. 

Two of the worst blizzards in the history of the state are the Great Blizzard of 1888 and the Blizzard of 1996. The blizzard in 1888 occurred in March and lasted three days. It dumped record-amounts of snow throughout the Northeastern United States, including 50 inches in Pennsylvania alone! Cities were shut down for days and around 400 people lost their lives. The cost of damages during that time was $25 million. The blizzard in 1996 occurred in January and dumped between 30 and 40 inches of snow throughout the Northeast. There was so much snow that businesses had to close until the roads cleared up. The city chose to dump snow on the rivers for a faster process of removal— this only caused flooding later on.

As you can see, winter storms can be harsh! I recommend updating your car kit every fall and winterizing your car and your home to prepare for the weather changes. Storms can become very severe and transportation can become difficult, so always be prepared for the worst possible scenario. At best, you may never need to touch your kit. At worst, it might save you life or someone else’s who you may encounter on the road. I wrote a comprehensive guide to help you think about all the risks associated with winter storms and how you can be ready for them. Find the guide here! 


5. Tornadoes

Pennsylvania averages 16 tornadoes each year. Tornadoes are expected between April and June, but they can occur at any time of year if the climate favors it. 

A few of the worst tornadoes to hit Pennsylvania were part of the tornado outbreak of May 31st, 1985. Two F4 and one F5 tornadoe that began in Ohio traveled across Pennsylvania, causing major devastation and fatalities along the way. The F5 tornado, which is the highest rating for a tornado, is the only F5 to touch down in the state.

To prepare for a twister, you need to think ahead of time. Since tornadoes can develop rapidly, you should determine the safest places to take shelter at each of the places you frequent the most. For instance, if a tornado strikes while you’re at work, where will you go? If you’re at home? At the grocery store? Driving somewhere? Tornadoes can happen at any time of the year, so be prepared to find a safe structure anywhere at a moment’s notice. Find some more valuable preparedness tips here. 


6. Landslides

Landslides in Pennsylvania tend to be slow-moving due to the low-altitude mountain ranges. More often than not, they alter the topography and damage structures or roads. It’s very rare for them to cause fatalities but that’s not entirely out of the question. You should prepare for a landslide if your property or community is vulnerable to mudslides. You can have an engineer come out to your house and measure the probability if you’re unsure. If you’re in some type of a dangerous area, I recommend implementing some adjustments to your yard and home in order to mitigate the risk. Here you can find some mitigation suggestions as well as safety tips! 


7. Wildfires

Pennsylvania averages anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 wildfires per year. The state reports that up to 99% of all fires are caused by humans, whether that’s because of careless debris burning, campfires, downed power lines, misuse of equipment or equipment failure, and arson. Wildfire season is during the spring months of March, April, and May, as well as the fall months of October and November. 

One of the worst fires in the state’s recent history occurred in 2016 and was named the “16-Mile Fire” because that’s how far it stretched. It also burned over 8,000 acres and damaged around 12 structures. The cause of this fire was arson.

To become prepared for a wildfire, I highly recommend clearing dry brush and trees from your property, as well as removing any flammable materials (such as firewood) from the side of your house. Giving your home defensible space is a great start to mitigate the risk of your home experiencing devastation from wildfires. When a fire approaches, you need to evacuate as soon as possible so that you can get to safety on time. In some cases, there are few roads leading in and out of a town. Make sure you know your city or town’s evacuation routes and any side streets in case there’s traffic when fleeing. Always keep an evacuation kit in your car and include copies of your most important documents in that backpack— you can put them on a USB or have paper copies. In this wildfire preparedness guide, you can find all these recommendations and more safety tips! 


8. Power Outages

Any disaster puts our electricity at risk. Perhaps it’s heavy snowfall on a power line or severe winds that knock down a transmission tower. Whatever the case, we should know that one of the major threats of any natural and man-made disaster is the loss of our power supply. Pennsylvania is no stranger to outages. In fact, a couple of the longest outages occurred in this state. 

In November 1965, the Northeast Blackout widespread outage occurred leaving more than 30 million people across 8 states without electricity. The cause was a human error. The result was up to 13 hours of no electricity, leaving many people stranded at work, at home, and at risk of looting, as well as cold.

In June 2012, the Derecho Blackout caused 4.2 million people across 11 states plus D.C. to be left without power for 7 to 10 days. The cause of this blackout was weather-related. 

A short-term power outage might not seem like too big of a deal, but a long-term outage is very disruptive. We rely on electricity heavily, and not having it can make things difficult, to say the least. Food, water, and hygiene are three of the most important things when preparing for an emergency. Without power, it’ll be difficult to get water (if you have a pump especially), cook food (if you have an electric stovetop), and maintain hygiene (your plumbing may be disrupted). Learn what you need to do by following our comprehensive guide on power outages! 


9. Earthquakes
 

Earthquakes are very rare in Pennsylvania, but they’re worth mentioning. While this is not a major seismic state, there are active faults that you should familiarize yourself with. The Ramapo Fault is a 70-mile fault line that runs from the southern region of New York to the southern region of Pennsylvania. The Southern Great Lakes Seismic Zone is located in the northwestern part of the state near Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The earthquakes that have been recorded in Pennsylvania mostly occur in the Southeastern part of the state, however, the largest-ever recorded quake was a magnitude 5.2 and it occurred in the Northwest. 

To prepare for an earthquake, just remember to drop to the ground when the ground starts shaking. It doesn’t matter where you are, whether that’s indoors or outdoors, but get close to the ground so that the shake won’t toss you around. Then, cover your head and neck with your arms and if possible, grab onto anything that is sturdy. This will help you regain your balance. Once the shaking has stopped, move to a safer location. Note that aftershocks are commonly felt after strong earthquakes and there’s always the possibility of objects falling off the shelves if you’re staying near them. Observe your surroundings and make sure the earthquake didn’t cause damage to your property. The threat of an earthquake causing major damage in Pennsylvania is fairly low, but if you’re interested in learning more about earthquake safety, look here. 


Natural disaster resources for Pennsylvania


Even though Pennsylvania is prone to disasters, it shouldn’t make you fearful or worried to live there. Emergencies can happen anywhere so learning ways to cope, mitigate, and effectively manage those situations takes effort, practice, and learning. The following resources are very helpful, both for those who are just getting started and those who have been preparing for years. 

  • Receiving up-to-date alerts as weather events are forecasted is important for determining the immediate steps afterward— will you need to evacuate? Or shelter in place? You may need to adjust your safety strategy depending on if you receive a watch or warning. Download the NOAA Weather App and keep the notifications turned on so you can receive real-time updates.

  • Since disasters affect us differently, planning for them is different too. I understand that learning various mitigation methods and ways to stay safe can easily be forgotten, especially in the midst of an emergency. To help make the process less stressful, I made comprehensive guides with free checklists that you can keep with your emergency kits for easy access when you need them. Find the guides here! I hope you will find them useful! 

  • If you want to put your skills to the test, you should join the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). This is a government organization that provides free training and simulations for disasters, that way, the day something happens, you’ll know how to respond. Find your local CERT here and get to know other people in your area who are interested in the same thing. 

  • If you have a company, resources, or skills that can benefit people in your community after a disaster, you should look into joining Pennsylvania’s VOAD:   Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This organization works to meet the immediate needs of those affected by a disaster right after they occur. They only work within the state of Pennsylvania, however, if a mass disaster happens in another state, their help may be requested.

  • The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is the state government office that is responsible for helping the public during both the preparedness and recovery process. You can find some resources on their website. 

The future is so uncertain that it can be scary at times. The moment you receive notice of a major storm approaching your way, you may become panicked or you may act with assurance. The response you take is correlated with the knowledge you’ve gained and the way you’ve prepared. We prepare not because we’re afraid of what’s coming, but because we know that we’re not able to control it, yet we’re determined to overcome it. 


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