I remember the first time I traveled to Texas. It was one of my first solo-trips anywhere and I couldn’t wait to start exploring new territories. Being so familiar with the California weather, I chose to travel at the peak of summer because I’m not a big fan of the cold. Haha! Any Texan would know that I was in for a surprise. I’ll never forget getting off the plane and immediately walking into a thick wall of hot and humid air. I started sweating profusely within seconds. (Sorry if that's too much information!)
To my defense, this all happened in 2011 when Siri wasn’t my buddy and I didn’t have any other smart devices to warn me of extreme climate changes. I was coming from a mountain climate with cool breezes and warm afternoons, but nothing would have prepared me for a Texas-style summer.
In the years that followed, I have become much more aware of the news revolving around Texas, especially when it has to do with natural hazards. I have come to find that it’s one of the most disaster-prone states in the US and every year, at least one major natural disaster affects the Lone Star State.
What natural disasters does Texas have?
Texas’ most common natural disasters include wildfires, floods, hurricanes, severe storms, tornadoes, extreme heat, landslides, and power outages. Other less significant storms include winter storms, coastal storms, and earthquakes.
Between 1953 and 2019, Texas declared 266 major disasters, of which floods and severe storms happened the most according to FEMA.
With an average of almost 900 wildfires per year, Texas is considered the second-most wildfire-prone state after California. According to the A&M Forest Service, at least 90% of all Texas wildfires are caused by humans. The majority of these fires are a result of burning debris carelessly, discarding cigarette butts improperly, and arson among other things, but some natural contributing factors are hot summers and long periods of drought.
One of the worst wildfires in Texas history occurred in the months of September and October of 2011. On September 4, 2011, three different fires began in Bastrop County when sparks from some power lines came into contact with dry shrubs and trees. The high winds of Tropical Storm Lee intensified these fires and eventually merged them together. It took over a month for the Bastrop County Complex Fire to reach full containment, and after it did, the damage revealed that the fire was responsible for destroying almost 1,700 homes, causing an estimated $325 million in damage, and the loss of 4 people.
Over 72% of the population — or 18 million Texans— live in an area that has a high wildfire risk so developing an action and evacuation plan is crucial. Some fires may take a community by surprise, therefore preparing a bug-out kit with essential supplies for yourself and your family is definitely encouraged. The Texas Wildfire Incident Response System shows all the current active wildfires and provides information to determine your level of threat at any given time. You should remain on alert when the circumstances are favorable for wildfires. For more tips on wildfire preparedness, check out our complete guide!
Flood zones in Texas are determined by areas that have a 1% chance or higher of becoming flooded. By that definition, a grand portion of the state is considered to be in a flood zone. Different types of flooding can occur in the state, including coastal flooding, urban flooding, river flooding, and flash floods. According to studies, there has been a consistent increase in precipitation over the last few years leading researchers to believe that global warming and climate change is an influencing factor. Without getting deep into this theory, I think it’s safe to highlight the importance of knowing a region or home’s particular risk prior to moving or buying a new property. The city of Houston, and its neighboring eastern and northern areas, are specifically vulnerable to severe flooding.
One of the worst floods Texas has experienced happened in September 2019 when Tropical Storm Imelda brought up to 42 inches of rain in just under a week. The storm resulted in widespread flooding that covered highways, homes, and displaced animals (like alligators!), as well as caused 4 direct and 1 indirect fatality and roughly $2 billion in damages.
In order to prepare for a flood, Texans must be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Floodwaters become dangerous for walking and driving in, so evacuations should take place before a city has become flooded. Tropical storms and hurricanes bring in a lot of rainfall, so those are the seasons when the risk becomes higher. Learn some flood mitigation and safety tips in our complete guide here!
Tropical storms and hurricanes affect Texas every year, more often in the months of August and September. Tropical storms are a weaker version of hurricanes, in terms of sustained wind speeds, but that doesn’t mean that they’re any less dangerous. Oftentimes these storms bring in massive amounts of rainfall leading to severe flooding, storm surges, coastal erosion, power outages, and the possibility of landslides and flash floods.
The most destructive hurricane to hit Texas in recent history was Hurricane Harvey which made landfall at San Jose Island and then Rockport in late August 2017. Hurricane Harvey reached the coast of Texas with sustained wind speeds of up to 130 mph and poured over 40 inches of rain in a matter of days. This caused immense tragedy, including at least 107 deaths and over $125 billion in damages. This became the costliest tropical cyclone in the world.
Hurricane season begins in June and lasts all the way through November, so being prepared during these months is critical. There are several ways to protect your home prior to the storm to prevent extensive wind or water damage. Look into retrofitting your home during the late spring months. You should always have a backpack ready in case a quick evacuation warning is issued. Some tropical storms, including Harvey, are unpredictable. They may seem to be weak at first but they can pick up speed and strength within hours. During tropical storm season, be sure to stay tuned to your local weather and/ or NOAA radio station. For more hurricane tips, take a look at our complete guide!
4. Severe Storms
On top of extensive rainfall and high winds, including those attributed to tropical storms, Texas can experience a variety of severe storms that include hail, thunder, lightning, and tornadoes (we’ll specifically discuss this one next). Thunderstorms can occur any time of the year when the atmospheric conditions are favorable, however, we typically see more of these storms happening during the spring— that is, March through May. The state averages 50 days of thunderstorms each year.
With thunder and lightning, you should consider the possibility of hail. Although not synonymous with one another, these storms may be experienced together. Hail can range in size, from as little as tiny pebbles to as large as a softball (I’m not exaggerating!) Texas has seen some of the costliest hail-related damages on record. One of the worst hail storms was the Forth Worth Mayfest storm that occurred on May 5, 1995. This storm traveled across many counties and produced hail in varying sizes, injuring roughly 100 people, killing 13 others, and costing the state an average $2 billion in damages. Generally, the Northern region of Texas has more hail storms but no place on the map is off-limits.
It’s important to take all severe storm alerts seriously. Sometimes lightning can reach up to 10 miles away, so when a storm approaches, your safest bet is to wait it out in an indoor building. Refrain from bathing, doing laundry, or washing dishes—basically anything that connects you to water, since that’s a conductor of electricity. Stay in an interior room, away from the windows, and avoid using a landline phone, or anything that connects you to the ground. Lightning and hail can cause serious injuries, so stay safe indoors and be patient while the storm passes. For tips on severe storm preparedness, check out our guide here!
The majority of US tornadoes occur in Texas, possibly because of the location of the sate and its size. If you’ve heard of Tornado Alley, you may know that there are no clear boundaries to this proposed region, yet Northern Texas is technically a part of it. As a whole, Texas experiences an average of 140 to 150 tornadoes each year, with a large amount of them occurring in the Red River Valley of North Texas and the least amount occurring in the southwestern part of the state.
On September 20, 1967, Texas hit a record number of 67 tornadoes in the same day. Over the course of five days, this number had reached 115! These tornadoes were said to have been brought on by Hurricane Beulah.
Tornadoes can cause extensive damage to structures and put people’s lives in grave danger. A tornado shelter is highly recommended, especially if you live in an area that is prone to twisters. Tornadoes can develop within minutes, so the warning time that residents get might be a maximum of fifteen minutes. Tornadoes are known to occur during March through June, but they can happen any time of the year. You should always be ready to take cover when and if needed. Find some tornado preparedness resources here.
6. Extreme Heat and Drought
On average, Texas currently experiences 60 days of dangerous heat every year, and some sources say that that number may be growing. Dangerous heat is defined by two or more days of combined high heat and humidity. According to States At Risk, Texas is home to nine of the hottest cities in the United States— that’s insane! Extreme heat can be life-threatening, especially to vulnerable age groups, such as young children and adults over the age of 65. If you remember my story from earlier, I had the privilege of traveling to Texas during one of the hottest times of the year. Even for a young “healthy” adult, I found the heat to be truly unbearable, so I sympathize with all the Texans who have to deal with it year after year. Extreme heat also brings about another factor to the mix, and that is the increased risk of drought.
Drought can intensify other natural disasters, such as wildfires and flash floods. When there’s no source of water, the plants, trees, and shrubs dry up and become perfect tinder for a wildfire. Add a few gusts of wind and you have the right recipe for a disaster! On the other hand, when the rain finally comes around, the soil may have a difficult time absorbing it after long periods of drought, therefore causing flash flooding and possible landslides.
One of the most intense droughts in Texas history began on May 4, 2010, and ended on July 7, 2015. The worst time was in 2011 during the first week of October where almost 88% of Texas was under D4 conditions, which is characterized by exceptional crop and pasture losses as well as extreme water shortages throughout the state. Drought can cause a myriad of problems in any region. Here you can find Texas’ current drought monitor.
In order to stay safe for extreme heat and drought conditions in the future, we must become prepared for them now. There are ways to retrofit your home if you have the budget for that, but some budget-friendly solutions include going to public places that have air conditioning during those days. It will save you money on your A/C and help prevent a wide-spread power outage due to overload— something that is quite common during high heat. For more tips on extreme heat safety, take a look at our guide!
Just like floods, landslides can occur just about anywhere in the world— Texas is no exception. According to a map on the distribution of expansive soils in the South Central US, Texas has several areas running across the north and south that are especially vulnerable to landslips. If you live in an area with mountains or steep slopes, you may be at risk. Mudslides are more common during periods of excessive precipitation, and a region’s risk increases if there has been a wildfire within the previous three years, as well as a recent earthquake or human modification to the land. Picture it this way— when the bottom layer of soil on a hill or mountain becomes unstable or isn’t strong enough to maintain the upper level of soil, it slips. Depending on the steepness of the slope, the rock or mud may travel a short or long distance, causing a small or large amount of damage along the way.
To become prepared for a landslide, I would recommend you determine your level of risk first, both in your property and in your community as a whole. Once you determine this, take preventative measures to secure your home and property for mitigation purposes. Then, prepare an emergency backpack that you can carry in the event of a quick evacuation if the threat of a landslide is present. Check out our landslide preparedness guide for more information and ideas.
8. Power Outages
Twenty-nine million or more people are at risk of a power outage in the state of Texas. If you’re a Texan, that number includes you!
That’s right, no one can escape the chance of a power outage but you can take preventative measures to mitigate your risk.
Power outages can occur at any time of the year but are commonly linked to natural disasters because Mother Nature is a lot stronger than most manmade structures. Electric power lines can burn down during wildfires, get torn apart during high winds, get washed away during flash floods, and get ripped off the map completely by a tornado. One of the best ways we can protect ourselves is by having a generator, non-perishable supplies (including food and water), and hygiene items since the plumbing system most likely will stop working until the power returns. Check out this power outage preparedness guide for the full scoop on how you and your family can become prepared for a long-term blackout!
Mild earthquakes can (and do) happen in Texas but the threat is not nearly as high as it is on the Western US coast. Texas lies on a chunk of land that at one point in time had active volcanoes and earthquakes. In today’s time, scientists consider those volcanoes and fault lines inactive, so little to no movement is expected. Researchers are analyzing the probability of a future earthquake occurring in Texas after a series of minor earthquakes began shaking the northern region in 2008. The US Geological Survey findings so far conclude that the shaking could have been due to the human manipulation of land, and although this is still under investigation, there has been no solid evidence to fully support the idea that the fault lines below the state are active. It would be interesting to keep up with this research as it is published and released to the public.
10. Winter Storms
Severe winter storms are rare in many parts of Texas, but there are some cities (particularly in the North) that are prone to heavy snow, ice storms, freezing temperatures, and even blizzards. One of the worst winter storms in recent years happened in 2011 when several parts of the Texas panhandle received up to 24 inches of snow and Houston received severe ice causing power outages and at least 800 vehicle accidents. Prior to this, a few other blizzard-like storms occurred that caused extensive damage including the loss of a few hundred cattle.
Natural disaster resources for Texas
If you’ve made it this far and are still reading, then surely you have a preparedness mindset! I wouldn’t end this article without giving you some tips on what you can do to become fully prepared for a future disaster. So let’s get to it.
- Be the first one to hear about weather-related alerts and storm warnings. Sign up to receive notifications from the NOAA Weather App.
- Every disaster is different. This is why preparing and mitigating the risk looks different in each scenario. We offer comprehensive guides for the main natural disasters, in which free printable checklists are included. These resources are made for you to print and keep with your emergency supplies in the event that you may ever need to access them at a moment’s notice. Take advantage of all of the guides here!
- Joining your community’s preparedness efforts is the next best step! The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is a government-run organization that offers free local classes where you learn how to prepare for a disaster, as well as how to help your neighbors in need. It makes a huge difference to learn these skills in person, as well as meet like-minded people who will help you grow and improve your efforts. Find your local CERT club here.
- If you have an organization or have services/ supplies to offer your community after a natural disaster, contact the Texas VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This organization gathers information about which resources are available throughout the state of Texas and will reach out to you at a time when your community, or a nearby community, needs what you have to offer.
- The Texas Division of Emergency Management has many resources to help you in every phase of disasters, whether that is in the planning or recovery process. You can visit their website for more information.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the natural disasters that can affect the Lone Star state. Texas is not only one of the states at higher risk of a disaster, but it’s also the second-largest US states, so I guess the greater the territory, the greater the probability. In any case, your safety and awareness are essential in overcoming future disasters, which is why becoming prepared for emergencies is vital. I promise that in return for your preparedness efforts now, you will receive peace of mind, and that’s priceless!
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