Virginia is known as the birthplace of the nation and is also where the first English settlement took place. The Old Dominion State entered the Union as the 10th of the 13 colonies, after which thousands of battles were fought during the civil war. Virginia is also known for being the birthplace of the most US presidents, as well as the state where eight presidents resided in, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Our nation’s rich historical and governmental roots are not the only things that make Virginia so great. In fact, millions of people are drawn to the state each year to enjoy the hiking trails along the Blue Ridge Mountains, to see the wild ponies, and to taste its delicate selection of wines.
Although it’s a prime travel destination, Virginia is prone to some natural disasters which we will discuss in detail here.
What natural disasters does Virginia have?
Virginia’s most common natural disasters include severe storms, tropical storms, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, winter storms, extreme heat, landslides, and power outages. Another less significant disaster includes earthquakes. Between 1953 and 2019, Virginia declared 67 major disasters, of which severe storms and hurricanes happened the most according to FEMA.
1. Severe Storms
Severe storms are no strangers to the Old Dominion State. Virginia is the 19th wettest US state and severe rainstorms are responsible for bringing in the majority of the precipitation, primarily along the southern half of the state and the western mountainous region. Thunderstorms are very common. They can occur anytime throughout the year but they’re more likely to occur during the summer; they typically average between 35 to 45 storms between June and August alone.
Summer is the time of year when people spend a lot of their time outdoors. It’s also the peak of the storm season. Thunderstorms are oftentimes accompanied by strong winds, hail, and lightning, which is the reason why they are so dangerous. When people see a storm brewing on the horizon, they forget to realize that lightning can travel for several miles and strike any object— the power of a single bolt is enough to cause severe injuries or death. Virginia ranks 14th among all the states with respect to the most lightning fatalities.
In order to stay safe from lightning, you should be aware of rapidly changing weather patterns and storm warnings from the National Weather Service. If you have any outdoor activities planned during the time when a storm is forecasted, postpone those plans. Your wellbeing should be your priority— the outdoors will still be there after the storm passes! If a storm catches you by surprise, find shelter immediately. Take refuge in a building or structure that has sturdy walls on all sides. Do not touch or use any object that conducts electricity, such as metal or landline telephones. Many storms last approximately 30 minutes, so once it clears up, you should be able to resume what you were previously doing. For more thunderstorm safety tips, check out our guide and download the free checklist!
2. Tropical Storms
Due to the geography and topography of the region Virginia is located in, no hurricane has ever made landfall there. The effects of hurricanes and their “weaker” counterparts — tropical storms and tropical depressions — should not be understated however as they are still responsible for causing severe damage. The southeastern region generally receives the strongest impact from these storms, but the entire coast is vulnerable. Typical damages include heavy rainfall, storm surges, flooding, gusty winds, downed trees, power outages, and beach erosion. Tropical storms are expected to hit Virginia at least once a year, while the remnants of hurricanes are expected once every 2 to 3 years.
Nor’easters are also known to affect Virginia, primarily the southeastern portion. Hurricanes and nor’easters are both rotating storms that form over the Atlantic Ocean and they typically cause similar effects. The main difference between the two is that hurricanes form over warm air and nor’easters form over cold air. Because of this, hurricanes tend to occur between the months of June and November (thereby bringing in a lot of rain), while nor’easters tend to occur between September and April (thereby bringing in a lot of rain and snow).
Hurricane Camille in August 1969 was the strongest hurricane Virginia has ever experienced. The high-sustained winds and heavy rainfall led to storm surges, inland flooding, flash floods, landslides, extensive power outages, the collapse of major routes of transportation (roads, bridges, railroads, etc), and fatalities. The damages were catastrophic throughout the Eastern US Coast, several other states, and Cuba.
While hurricanes of Camille’s magnitude rarely make landfall in the United States, these events go to show that it’s possible they can occur again in the future. Even small-scale tropical depressions can cause severe damage to select areas so it’s important to be prepared, especially if you live or are planning to move near the coast. Having a family evacuation plan is highly recommended, as well as enough food, water, and other basic supplies to help sustain you during and after the storm. For our complete guide on hurricane and tropical storm preparedness, check out this article!
With its numerous types of storms, 2,900 dams, and four major rivers flowing through the state, Virginia is prone to flooding. Floods are oftentimes caused by short periods of heavy precipitation, dam failure, severe storms and surges, debris/ ice jams, and rapid snowmelt. While there is not a specific month where floods occur the most, July and August are the months that see the most amount of precipitation every year. While the mountainous regions receive more rain and snow than the coast, the coastal region is the most susceptible to floods. This map provides information on the flood risk level statewide.
One of the worst floods in Virginia history was the Election Day Flood of 1985. During the 1st through the 3rd of November, Virginia was affected by heavy rains due to the remnants of Hurricane Juan that had made landfall in the Gulf of Mexico days earlier. The rain caused the soil to become saturated, thereby resulting in widespread flooding. Many residents were left stranded and 22 people died (in Virginia). The floods extended to West Virginia as well— bringing the estimated cost in damages to $1.4 billion (1985 USD) for both states.
Having a flood preparedness plan is vital if you live in Virginia. As the topography of the state changes, some areas that may be considered low-risk now might become high-risk in the future. When heavy rainfall is predicted, be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Keep a kit with your important documents, food, water, and other essential supplies handy so you can grab it and go. Discuss your plan with every member of your household, especially if you have young kids at home. To learn more about flood mitigation and preparedness, visit our complete guide here!
Virginia has 24 designated wilderness areas that encompass over 215,000 acres of land. Without a doubt, it’s the state’s priority to maintain and preserve these areas as well as the wildlife that lives among it. The threat of wildfires has increased for two primary reasons. One is that people are building homes and moving closer to the wilderness-urban areas. Without defensible space of trees and shrub clearance, a fire that sweeps through an area can easily engulf homes. The second threat is that many people burn debris on their property and they either leave it unattended or it escapes their control. Careless debris burning is the number one cause of wildfires in the state. In response to this, many counties throughout Virginia have implemented strict burn bans.
While fires can occur any time of the year, the peak season for Virginia is spring. The spring wildfire season runs from February 15th through April 30th and the fall wildfire season runs from October 15th through November 30th. On average, the state experiences 1,200 wildfires every year which results in thousands to millions of dollars in damages.
One of the worst wildfires to affect Virginia occurred on April 2016 and burned a total of 10,326 acres. The cause of the fire remains unknown but it is suspected that it was caused by humans. It was called the Rocky Mountain Fire.
In order to prevent wildfires, it is urged that people become fire-wise. If you’re planning to burn debris or want to build a bonfire, do so in areas where it’s allowed and be sure to have all the necessary extinguishing tools to stay in control of the fire at all times. As for mitigation and home preparedness, you should trim trees and dry brush that are in close proximity to your home. For personal preparedness, you should have an evacuation kit stocked with all the essentials to survive a minimum of 72 hours in the event that you need to leave your home because of an approaching fire. For more wildfire preparedness resources, check out our complete guide here!
Virginia has an average of 6 to 7 tornadoes per year and ranks as the 29th most-affected US state. Even though they can occur at any time of the year, the majority of tornadoes occur in April. They can also occur anywhere in the state when the weather conditions are favorable— it should come as no surprise that they have been seen swirling around near the capital, Richmond.
The deadliest tornado in Virginia’s recorded history occurred on May 2, 1929. This F2 tornado happened unexpectedly and provided the community of Rye Cove little to no warning. It plowed through a school, killing 12 students and 1 teacher.
While tornadoes are less common than other natural disasters in Virginia, it is still something you should become prepared for. You should learn which signs to look out for and pre-determine a place to seek shelter if a tornado is forecasted nearby. Learn more tornado preparedness tips and download our free checklist here!
6. Winter Storms
Virginia does not have “bad" winters when compared to many of the other 50 states, but it does receive snow, freezing rain, low temperatures, and occasional blizzards. Heavy snow is commonly experienced in the Western mountainous region. The temperature during the peak of winter averages 26°F. The coldest ever recorded temperature in Virginia was -30°F in Mountain Lake on January 22, 1985.
Several snowstorms and blizzards have impacted Virginia over the years. One of the most recent memorable ones occurred in early February 2010. It was titled the North American Blizzard (as well as Snowmaggedon) and it affected several states from the East Coast up to the Midwest. Virginia received up to a foot of snow and killed at least 2 people (in the state— overall the fatalities exceeded 41).
Snow doesn’t accumulate much state-wide but you should still take normal precautions when snowstorms are forecasted. If you commute a lot in your car, it’s recommended that you keep a vehicle kit with all the necessary items to sustain you if you become stranded for a few hours. You can find more tips on winter preparedness in our guide here!
7. Extreme Heat and Drought
Extremely high temperatures mixed with humidity are responsible for Virginia’s intense days of summer heat. Near the peak of summer, the state averages 10 days of dangerously high temperatures. This number is expected to increase to 40 or more within the next thirty years.
Virginia averages 86°F state-wide during the warmer months but select areas can reach 95°F or more. The highest ever recorded temperature in Virginia was 110°F at Balcony Falls on July 15, 1954.
Virginia occasionally experiences periods of drought. The longest period was approximately 103 weeks, beginning on May 1, 2007, and ending almost two years later on April 14, 2009. For the current drought updates, you can check out the drought monitor’s website.
Droughts and excessive heat can cause economic and physical consequences. During long periods of drought, you should become water-wise by practicing methods of conservation. Droughts can cause crop failures, which lead to less food production, an increase in demand, and a myriad of other problems. During a heatwave, you should avoid strenuous exercise during the hottest part of the day, stay well-hydrated, and know the symptoms of heat exhaustion— not just for your own safety, but for a loved one. If heat stress occurs, you should immediately consult medical help. For our complete guide on extreme heat preparedness, visit this page!
Landslides, rockslides, and debris flows occur on slopes where the bottom layer of soil is unable to handle the weight of the topsoil. Natural disasters and manmade events can trigger landslides, including heavy rainfall, storm corrosion, mining, and construction project that cut into mountains to build roads and bridges. Virginia is susceptible to landslides because of its topography. The most vulnerable part is the Western mountainous region, but the coastal areas are at risk during tropical storms.
Every 10 to 15 years, Virginia experiences a significant landslide. One of the worst landslides in Virginia’s recorded history was caused by the remnants of Hurricane Camille in 1969. The soil had become heavily saturated after 27” of rain fell within a short period of time. This led to multiple mudslides that killed 153 people.
Since multiple factors can influence a landslide, it’s necessary to know your risk and become prepared. There are several ways to mitigate property damage caused by small landslides and debris flows. If you live in a low-risk area, consider modifying the landscape of your property in a way that would divert the landslip from affecting your home directly. It’s illegal to divert it towards your neighbor’s property so you should consult with a topographic engineer that can give you professional advice. If you’re in a high-risk area, retrofitting your home might be beneficial. In the end, your safety remains a priority. Learn what signs and sounds to look out for and practice an evacuation plan with your family that would get you to safety (higher ground!) as soon as possible. For landslide mitigation and preparedness tips, read our comprehensive guide, and download the free checklist!
9. Power Outages
Natural and manmade disasters are largely responsible for causing power outages. The greater the magnitude of the disaster, the longer it may take crews to fix the damages and restore electricity to civilians. This map shows you how many outages Virginia is experiencing in real-time. One of the largest power outages experienced throughout the state occurred in 2011 and it affected roughly 1.2 million customers at the same time.
When the power goes out, we lose access to some of our most basic commodities like light and heat. We need to become prepared for dealing with long-term power outages because we know they are bound to occur as a side-effect of major disasters.
We tend to overlook the importance of electricity. It powers our phones, refrigerators, water pumps, heaters, air conditioning units, street lights, and so much more. Being without power for a few hours is usually no big deal. But a major outage can become life-threatening. In order to best prepare for a long-term outage, I recommend spending a weekend in the dark. For one or two days, turn off the main electric switch at your home and adjust to the challenges. You will quickly realize how your preparedness plan needs to be improved and which items are worth storing for future emergency use. For more information on power outage preparedness, check out our complete guide!
Virginia lies along two seismic zones: the Giles County Seismic Zone and the Central Virginia Seismic Zone. Although quakes occur throughout this region, the majority are rarely felt. In a year, it’s possible that one or two earthquakes will be felt above ground. Destructive earthquakes are possible but very uncommon. Geologists believe that this might change at some point considering that nature is not the only party responsible for ground movements. Mining, underground well digging, and other developments influence the surface of the Earth, therefore some earthquakes are linked to manmade activities. As the population of Virginia increases and metropolitan cities expand, it’s possible that earthquakes will have the potential to cause more damage.
One of the worst earthquakes in recent years occurred on August 23, 2011. The epicenter of the 5.8 magnitude quake was just an hour Northwest of Richmond. It rocked 22 of the nearby states and was felt as far as Canada. The quake destroyed several homes, caused damage to infrastructure, some injuries, but luckily no fatalities.
If you live near a fault line, it would be wise to learn how to respond during an earthquake. Since earthquakes occur unexpectedly, you will be caught off guard. Practice earthquake safety by identifying the safest place to go if you need to take cover. Earthquake damages can be mitigated by properly securing your furniture and other items throughout your home. Find our guide to earthquake preparedness here!
Natural disaster resources for Virginia
Clearly, Virginia is not immune to natural disasters. The good news is that there is plenty of help available to you for both the preparedness and recovery process. We highly encourage you to take advantage of the following resources:
- Download the NOAA Weather app on your phone. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the US organization responsible for alerting the public on weather changes as they are occurring. It is vital that you stay updated with weather alerts and warnings. The NOAA Weather App will send you these alerts to your phone as they are occurring. Be sure to keep your phone turned on to receive these important messages.
- Check out all of our disaster guides. We know how scary and overwhelming preparedness can become. That is why we simplified it! In our disaster preparedness page, you can find links to each major disaster type. At the end of each guide, you will see a button with a free downloadable checklist that you can print. I encourage you to keep printed copies of the checklists that are relevant to your area and save them with your important documents folder. This way, if a disaster is forecasted, you can look back at the checklist for a quick reference. Find all the disaster guides here!
- Many people learn best by doing and/or when they’re surrounded by likeminded individuals. If this sounds like you, definitely check out your local CERT group. CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) is a government organization that provides free teaching and training materials to help equip you as a responder for disasters in your community. Find your local CERT team here!
- For those of you who want to become involved in relief operations post-disaster, I recommend you check out Virginia’s Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VAVOAD) group. This organization is a group of volunteers that essentially mobilizes resources after a disaster occurs. They determine which needs are immediate and work with the nearby communities to meet those needs as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Finally, you can check out Virginia’s Department of Emergency Management. Their website offers many resources to help you learn how to respond to different disasters, where to evacuate to, and where to reach out if you need help in the recovery process.
I hope this article was helpful to you. While disasters may happen anywhere, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Become prepared now to alleviate the effects of a future disaster and share your knowledge with loved ones so that they can do the same!
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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