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

Natural disasters in Tennessee

Not too long ago I did some research on the state of Tennessee and I got myself so pumped to take a trip out there. I’m so excited to hike in the Great Smokey Mountains, photograph the scenery of the Cumberland Plateau, hear the music in Downtown Nashville, and experience everything in between!

I am still in the process of picking a date, but I can assuredly say that sooner than later I’ll be coming for you, Tennessee! 

The Volunteer State is prone to disasters, just like everywhere else, but based on what I’ve learned about the state so far, I’m pretty sure the benefits outweigh the troubles.

What natural disasters does Tennessee have?

Tennessee’s most common natural disasters include severe storms, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, tropical storms, landslides, power outages, and earthquakes. 

Between 1953 and 2019, Tennessee declared 59 major disasters, of which severe storms and floods happened the most according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

1. Severe Storms

Tennessee experiences a variety of severe storms, including thunder and lightning, heavy rains, hail, ice storms, and even winter weather with heavy snow.

In recent years, deaths due to lightning have increased in the state— all of these occurred when the person who lost their life was doing some type of outdoor activity. 

Most of the severe storms that put Tennesseans at risk occur during the spring and summer months, however, a few have been known to occur in the winter. Such was the case with the Nashville Ice Storm of 1951.

In Tennessee, this winter storm was called the Great Blizzard. It was a four-day storm that began at the end of January. By the end of the event, Nashville was covered in 8 inches of snow which soon turned to ice.

This caused a widespread power outage that left more than 80,000 people in the dark. It also disrupted the communication and transportation services forcing stores to close for three days. Overall, the damages exceeded $2 million at that time. Hundreds of vehicles became stranded, dozens of people were injured, and two people were killed. 

Severe storms may come and go quickly, so it’s important to know the signs and know when to take shelter. If you see or hear a thunderstorm in the distance, that’s your cue to get to a safe indoor location.

Lighting can strike for miles so don’t sit on the porch admiring it. Getting hit by a lightning bolt can be deadly or leave a person with life-long side-effects.

During high winds, remember to bring in or secure any patio furniture or decorations that may become flying debris.

In the event of heavy rainfall, be aware of the risk of flash floods and get to higher ground it you're at risk. A couple of inches of rain is enough to cause major damage as a result of flooding.

If you have farm animals, protect them by taking them inside their barn or pens until the storm has cleared out. For more information on preparing for severe storms, check out this guide. 

2. Floods

Floods can occur when storms reel in excess amounts of rainfall and snow. When a storm produces more rain than the land can handle, rivers overflow, the Earth erodes, and the water takes the path of least resistance, which oftentimes means farmland, homes, and other structures.

The mean elevation of Tennessee is only 900 feet, but the highest elevation is 6,643 ft. This means that any low-lying areas are especially susceptible to flooding. 

One of the worst floods in the state's recent history is the 2010 Tennessee Flood. In a matter of just 36 hours, Nashville was hit with 13.57 inches of rain— more than ever before in such a short time. The intense rain resulted in the loss of roughly 11,000 structures and 26 people. The estimated cost in damages exceeded $2 billion.

Floods are common after periods of heavy precipitation. 

If your home is located in a moderate to higher risk zone, be sure to make an evacuation plan ahead of time.

Consider getting flood insurance to reduce some of the possible costs of property damages, especially in flood-zone areas. 

Note that some of the evacuation roads in your area may become flooded or damaged due to the rising waters, so pick more than one route. Never attempt to cross flood waters.

For more tips on flood preparedness, I’ve written this guide where you can find lots of helpful information. 

3. Wildfires

Tennessee experiences between 2,000 and 3,000 wildfires annually. These fires are more likely to occur in mountainous and heavily forested areas, and during the two wildfire seasons which include the months between mid-February to mid-May and mid-October to mid-December.

Currently, an estimated 2.3 million Tennesseans live in a place that is located in a region of high risk. The main causes of fires in the state are linked to man-made activities, such as the careless burning of debris and arson. 

One of the fires that stands out among the rest includes the 2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires. This was a series of fires that decimated several towns throughout the Great Smokey Mountains.

The fire burned 17,136 acres, destroyed 2,460 structures, caused over $500 million in damages, injured 190 people, and killed 14 others. The tragedy of this event is still felt in these communities today. 

If your home is located in a place with a high risk of wildfires, definitely make an action plan. First, you can begin by creating defensible space around your home. This means that you should clean up your landscape by removing any dead trees, branches, leaves, and anything else that could catch on fire.

There are fire-resistant materials for the home as well that you can look into if you have to make routine repairs or upgrade the windows, etc.

Finally, make an evacuation and communication plan with your family.

In the event of a wildfire threatening your home, what will be your steps of action from that point forward?

You should learn how to secure your home before an evacuation as well as what to take with you on an evacuation. Find out all the wildfire preparedness details in this complete guide! 

4. Tornadoes

Tennessee gets a fair share of tornados. It averages 29 each year.

The state is not part of Tornado Alley, however the Western and Middle regions are oftentimes included in part of Dixie Alley. While every county has seen a tornado in the past, the most vulnerable areas are Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee.

The majority of them occur during the spring, between the months of March and May, however, it’s not completely out of the norm to see them occurring outside of this time frame. While they can occur during any time of day, they're common in the late afternoon or early morning hours. 

Since 1833, there have been an estimated 500 tornado sightings.

One of the worst tornadoes in Tennessee’s history occurred in March 1933 when an F3 tornado swept through Davidson County. In the 45-mile path that it traversed, it destroyed over 1,450 structures and caused 45 injuries and 15 fatalities.

Sixty-five years and a month later, in April 1988, a similar F3 tornado traveled along the same path, except this time it only traversed 32 miles. This tornado caused extensive damage worth over $100 million, as well as 60 injuries and 1 fatality. 

The deadliest natural disaster and quite possibly the worst tornado outbreak in state history occurred during the Southern US Tornado Outbreak of March 1952. A series of 31 tornadoes ripped through the Southern US. Twenty-two of those were violent, reaching EF3 and EF4 tornado rating (with a maximum wind speed of 200 mph). The death toll reached 67 in Tennessee alone. 

Be prepared if you live in a tornado-prone area! Twisters can gain strength in a matter of seconds. Be sure to take shelter immediately if receive a tornado warning or see one approaching.

One of the best places to shelter-in-place is the basement or a storm-proof shelter. Mobile homes, on the other hand, may not stand a chance against tornado winds.

Of course, you’re not always going to be home when a tornado forms, so be prepared to find shelter in your workplace, and any other place where you spend a lot of time in.

Finally, have your phone weather alerts turned on during the night in the event that a tornado forms while you’re sleeping. This is not unheard of and you want to be ready to take cover at any time and any place. Find more tornado safety tips here! 

5. Tropical Storms 

Hurricanes do not occur in Tennessee in their full capacity, however, Tennessee does get the residual rain and wind that comes from a weakened hurricane, also known as a tropical storm or depression.

This does not mean that you can rest easy during hurricane season. Tropical storms and depressions travel much slower than hurricanes do, therefore their potential to deliver rain becomes more intense the slower they go.

In Tennessee’s case, heavy precipitation can lead to soil saturation, flooding, flash flooding, landslides, and other disasters.

East Tennessee is closer to the coast than the rest of the state, making it more prone to tropical storms. Depending on the size of the hurricane and the speed at which it dissipates as it travels inland, however, the entire state can be impacted. 

Preparing for tropical cyclones includes protecting your home from wind damage and the possibility of flying debris, so I recommend looking into storm shutters for your exterior windows and other ways to retrofit your home.

If you’re sheltering in place during a tropical depression, make sure to have the supplies you need for eating, drinking, sanitizing, and staying safe for the next fourteen days. Although two weeks might sound like a long-term deal, the chance of power outages is very real and repairs can take longer than expected.

Prepare for more time than you think you need, and you’ll be better off than most! Find more tips on tropical storm preparedness here. 

6. Landslides

Many factors can influence a landslide, mudslide, or rockslide. Any region that has hills, slopes or mountains is immediately at risk because these disasters need a down-hill incline to travel.

The Great Smokey Mountains is the region that houses the highest peaks in Tennessee, including the point with the state’s highest altitude, Clingmans Dome, lying at 6,643 feet. Cities near these mountains are considered to be at-risk, as well as any region close to rivers and earthquake faults. 

The first step in preparing for a landslide is determining where your risk level is at. If your home is located near a large hill, the mountains or a riverbed, your risk is much greater than if you live in a flat area of course.

There are ways to protect your property from future landslips, but that may require a professional coming out to your property to give you an idea of what you’re up against as well as a large monetary investment on your part.

If you notice any odd cracks along the foundation of your home, this might be a sign of a developing slide and you may want to get it inspected. Learn more mitigation and safety tips on our landslide preparedness guide. 

7. Power Outages

Tennessee disasters pose a threat to the state's power lines. Electrical systems are very vulnerable to damage, especially if the equipment in place is already old or unstable.

One of the longest power outages experienced in the state was caused by the Memphis Summer Storm of 2003. This severe derecho brought in sustained wind-speeds of up to 100 mph and uprooted trees, tore off roofs, and wreaked havoc in many other ways. Nearly 80% of Memphis Light Gas & Water (MLGW) lost electricity for more than 10 days!

Power outages are extremely inconvenient and can become dangerous if they’re long-term. We’ve become so used to having electricity, that not having it for some time presents a new set of challenges.

Power outages may occur as a side-effect to any of the above-mentioned disasters, so preparing for them is not just important, but necessary. No one is truly immune from this.

Be sure to stockpile enough food, water, a fuel source, and a hygiene kit to survive a long-term power outage. To prevent the loss of refrigerated foods, and charge up mobile devices, I recommend getting a small generator or solar-powered battery kit.

This is a highly recommended option if you or someone in your household requires the use of electrical devices for medical needs. For a complete list of power outage tips, check out this article. 

8. Earthquakes

Tennessee is sandwiched between two major active seismic regions, the New Madrid Seismic Zone along the Western border of the state and the East Tennessee Seismic Zone in the East. According to studies presented by the United States Geological Survey, the New Madrid Fault can generate quakes with a magnitude of up to 7 to 8.

It’s also expected that this fault will have a major shake every 500 years or so. Based on seismic data, scientists say that there’s a 28 to 46% chance that a magnitude 6 or higher can shake the area sometime in the next 40 years.

Earthquakes are normal in Tennessee, hence why we should be prepared to be shaken up from time to time. Still, sources say that when compared to the West coast, Tennessee is a lot less susceptible to major quakes that have the potential to cause widespread damage.

When comparing the New Madrid Fault and the East Tennessee Fault, we can see that the New Madrid Fault is more of a hazard.

Earthquakes are scary and will more than likely catch people off guard. A strong quake can throw you to the ground, so the most important thing to do during a shaker is to drop to the ground, regardless of whether you’re indoors or outdoors.

Cover your head and neck with your arms and hands to prevent flying objects from hitting you. If possible, hold onto a nearby sturdy surface, such as the leg of a chair or table. This will help you not only regain your balance but also hopefully shield you from objects that are falling off the shelves.

Once the shaking stops, expect aftershocks. Find more earthquake preparedness tips on our guide!

Natural disaster resources for Tennessee

Awareness is the first step towards becoming prepared for a future emergency.

Now that you know what disasters every part of Tennessee is up against, you’re better able to gauge what the risk is in your area. The following tips are helpful for taking the next steps.

  • Being alerted of severe weather events as they occur is absolutely necessary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Weather Radio App) texts watches and warnings from the National Weather Service.

    This, and your local radio station or news channel, are the fastest ways to receive information of a forecasted event or emergency declaration. The app is free, so make sure to download it and keep the notifications turned on.

  • Some disasters can be overwhelming to prepare for, and in the heat of the moment, panic may set in and make you forget some essential safety tips. In order to solve this problem, I made detailed guides for each disaster type.

    At the end of each guide, you will find a checklist with additional information. You can download, print, and keep it with your emergency kit and supplies. That way, when an emergency occurs, you can access and refer to it quickly.

  • Building a community group of like-minded people brings preparedness to a whole new level. If you want to meet other people interested in becoming prepared like yourself, you’re in luck.

    The Emergency Community Response Team (CERT) is a government-based organization that offers emergency response training to the public for free. To find your local CERT club and get involved, look here.

  • If you’re interested in volunteering your time, skills, or services to the community after a disaster, you should connect with Tennessee’s VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

    This team of volunteers connects state government agencies and local organizations with the needs of a community affected by a major disaster. They organize the available resources to meet those needs.

    The American Red Cross is another organization you can look into. They provide immediate assistance in the form of evacuation shelters, food, and supplies after a disaster. 

  • The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency is the state’s official agency where you can find resources to assist you during any part of the disaster process, whether it be in preparedness training or recovery efforts during the aftermath of a crisis. 

I hope this article has provided insight into the potential hazards that may occur in Tennessee, as well as how you can be ready to overcome them.

The more we prepare and sharpen our skills, the more resilient we become to overcome future challenges.

We created an in-depth resource with guides, templates, and checklists that will allow you to customize your emergency plan according to your specific needs. Click here to get started!

Are you interested in learning about which disasters affect other states? Find the information to all the other 49 US states here!

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