West Virginia is a very picturesque state, boasting in vivid fall colors that cover the Blue Ridge Mountains while the Shenandoah River flows beneath it. John Denver said it best when he said it’s “almost heaven”.
On the one hand, the Mountain State is practically devoid of earthquakes and tornadoes, however, flooding and other natural disasters are known to have no mercy.
What natural disasters does West Virginia have?
West Virginia’s most common natural disasters include floods, severe storms, winter storms, wildfires, landslides, and power outages. Other less popular disasters include droughts and tropical storms.
Between 1953 and 2019, West Virginia declared 71 major disasters, of which floods and severe storms happened the most according to FEMA.
Flooding is one of the most common natural disasters to affect West Virginia— even 2 inches of rain is enough to cause significant destruction. The average precipitation in West Virginia is 45 inches of rainfall and 33 inches of snowfall each year. Some of the main causes of flooding include excessive amounts of rain, dam and levee failures, and overflowing rivers and poor city planning near floodplains. Flash flooding is also a common occurrence in West Virginia, especially after severe storms. Flash floods can exceed speeds of 10 mph and wash away roads, bridges, and even entire structures.
One of the worst floods in West Virginia’s recent history occurred in 2016 between the 22nd and 23rd of June. In only two short days, approximately 10 inches of rain fell over the state, causing major rivers to overflow and prompting a State of Emergency in 44 of 55 counties. This event resulted in 1,200 destroyed structures and 23 fatalities.
If you’re moving to a different community in West Virginia, my recommendation is to first look at the area’s flood risk. You can check with the city or even look for flood maps online to see how vulnerable each region is. If there’s a high risk, then you can expect a flood at some point or another. If there’s a low risk, you may still get some flooding but it might be somewhat manageable. Be sure to check our guide on floods where you can find more information on how to protect yourself and your home.
2. Severe Storms
West Virginia experiences about 145 days of precipitation each year. Other than rainfall, you can expect thunderstorms, hail storms, and supercells— severe rotating thunderstorms. Lightning can virtually strike anywhere throughout the state but can be seen more often in the northwest by Parkersburg, in a region known as “Lightning Alley".
In the last 60 years, around 26 fatalities were linked to direct lightning strikes. Even though that’s not a large number, it’s always important to get to a safe location in the event of a severe storm. If a storm lasts a short time, wait at least 30 minutes before you hear thunder or see lightning before going outside again. A lightning bolt can strike outside of the “thunderstorm” area, so even if it doesn’t feel like you’re in a dangerous place, you may be. It’s always safest to go inside a sturdy structure to wait the storm out.
Prolonged storms lasting several days are known to happen a few times a year. Prepare yourself days in advance with plenty of food, water, and emergency supplies to ride out the storm at home. Expect power outages too! Storms that last a couple of days can cause widespread flooding. Assess your risk level ahead of time and put sandbags out near vulnerable places where water may enter the home. Learn more severe storm tips here.
Note: If your area is under evacuation orders, in anticipation of a major storm, you should obey those orders.
3. Winter Storms
Just like many other Eastern states, West Virginia has gotten hit by significant winter storms. Winter storms can include snowstorms, blizzards, and ice storms.
In October 2012, the remnants of Hurricane Sandy brought heavy snowfall to many parts of West Virginia. Some areas were left without power for up to two weeks. One fatality occurred when a tree fell on a man who was clearing snow. A second fatality occurred when a man went into cardiac arrest while shoveling.
One of the worst blizzards that West Virginia has ever experienced was called the Storm of the Century, or the Blizzard of 1993. This happened in the middle of March and was rather unpredictable. Thanks to the technology of the time, the public was warned of the coming storm but only some were able to evacuate in time. Many others got snowed in and had to shovel themselves out of 20 or more inches of snow. The death toll of this superstorm exceeded 300 people.
West Virginia doesn’t experience major snowstorms every year, but it does receive an annual average of 33 inches of fluff. Looking at the state’s history gives us an insight into what the future may hold. It’s always best to be prepared long before a storm is forecasted. Usually, prices increase in the days preceding a storm because the demand is higher. It’s also much harder to find the supplies you need when the entire city is out doing the same thing. Prepare yourself with all the food, water, and supplies you may need to shelter at home while a strong storm passes. Always remember the possibility of long-term power outages and alternative means of staying warm in freezing temperatures. You can find a complete guide to extreme cold and winter storm preparedness here!
Wildfires are major contributors to West Virginia’s environmental problems. One of the leading causes of fires is arson, but they can also be caused accidentally by camping, fallen power lines, burning debris, hunters illegally smoking game, among other manmade mishaps. A very few number of fires in West Virginia are caused by lightning strikes. In recent years, the number of yearly fires in the state averaged out to 1,100. Typically they burn about 38,000 acres of land, although during dry years that number might be much higher. The fire seasons include the spring and fall months and laws remain in place to prevent the continuing trend of accidental manmade wildfires.
All the outdoorsy people should learn what the fire danger risks are before deciding to camp and build a bonfire. West Virginia’s Division of Forestry monitors the wildfire risk every day and failing to obey the regulations can be costly. In the event of a wildfire, you should be prepared to evacuate if your home is threatened.
West Virginia is one of the top US states with the highest landslide damage per capita. Just like flash floods, severe storms pose a huge risk for the possibility of mudslides and rockslides throughout the state. But that’s not the main cause of landslides, in fact, it’s being attributed to the coal mining industry as well as other human disturbances. The topography of the land and the type of soil have a lot to do with it. West Virginia has many steep mountains, hills, and valleys, allowing the water that flows downhill from the mountainsides to collect and flow into the valleys. Once those waters gain a little bit of momentum, they can cause major destruction to the nearing towns.
The soil type also makes landslips much more possible during any time of the year. As technology improves, light imaging and radar systems are being implemented to study old, new, and potential landslide areas. This will help the state determine where structures, such as retaining walls, need to be built in order to prevent future damage.
Landslides are still somewhat unpredictable. While an area may show signs of vulnerabilities, no one knows exactly when the slip will occur. Being prepared for such an event is a must. Listen to the local news and weather alerts and evacuate if there’s a landslide warning in your area. Make sure to go to a safe location until the threat subsides. If you hear the sound of a faint rumbling in the distance that is getting louder, or the cracking of trees and clapping of rocks, those are immediate signs that a landslide is actively occurring. Get to higher ground immediately! For more safety tips, check out our landslide guide.
6. Power Outages
Power outages are bound to happen in any state, especially during a natural disaster. It really doesn’t take much more than a few strong gusts of wind and rain to cause an outage that lasts more than 24 hours. West Virginia is well accustomed to that, I’m sure. One of the most recent outages happened on October 31, 2019, when heavy rains knocked out the power to more than 40,000 people.
Preparing for a long-term power outage will save you a lot of stress in the future. Usually, the power companies are able to take care of the problem within a reasonable time frame but consider that they’re working under less than desirable conditions. If the weather is too severe and their lives are at risk, they may hold off on repairs until it’s safe for them to continue. If you have children or elderly parents at home, you should make prior arrangements to make sure all their needs can be met in case the electricity goes out.
No matter where you live, make sure to have all your emergency supplies in an easy-to-access location. Store enough food and water to last you at least 3 days, if not more. For more tips on preparing for a power outage, you can get the complete guide here!
7. Extreme Heat and Drought
Over the past few years, the news has been highlighting the recurrence of heat waves, primarily affecting the larger cities. Scientists are analyzing the statistics of increasing high temperatures and prologued warmer days. While West Virginia’s average high temperature is a mere 65.7 degrees Fahrenheit, scientists are predicting that by the year 2050, up to 60,000 people may be vulnerable to extreme heat.
While I won’t offer my opinion on this specific topic, I will say that extreme heat and droughts are a possibility in West Virginia. One of the worst heat waves recorded in WV’s history occurred in the summer of 1936 when temperatures reached 112 degrees F. Much of the United States and Canada were affected, and the fatalities were in the thousands. Our country has not experienced anything nearly that epic since, but temperatures have lingered in a higher-than-normal range during the last few summers.
There are several ways to prepare for extreme heat. Extra caution should be taken for young children and people over the age of 65 who are statistically more vulnerable. Heat waves don’t pose a huge risk in West Virginia (not yet, anyway), but they are certainly likely to occur again! Also, here you can check out the current drought monitor for West Virginia.
8. Tropical Storms
West Virginia doesn’t get directly hit by hurricanes because it’s a landlocked state, however, the remnants of hurricanes can bring in heavy rainfall and gusty winds which largely contribute to flooding, mudslides, and power outages. It’s like taking a severe storm up a notch. Hurricane season begins in June and lasts up until November. Stay on alert during those months and tune in to your local news and NOAA Weather Radio for the latest information on developing storms. In some cases, you may be asked to evacuate. Always have an emergency kit ready to go and make sure to have your car filled with at least half a tank of gas to get you to a safe location.
Tornadoes can happen in West Virginia but they’re not as high of a threat as other disasters. Since 2010, only 35 tornadoes were reported by the National Center for Environmental Information. Of the 35 tornadoes, the grand majority were ranked an EF-O and EF-1. Only four tornadoes reached EF-2 and EF-3 status— there were two of each. I don’t want to dismiss the tornado idea entirely. Yes, you should be prepared because they are likely to happen again. But I wouldn’t necessarily lose sleep over it. There are many other types of disasters that probably deserve a lot more of your preparedness attention. In any case, know the threat in your community and know when to take shelter if a tornado gets close.
Natural disaster resources for West Virginia
After learning everything that can happen in the state of West Virginia, you may be wondering what your next step should be. Have no fear— there are several resources available to you!
- Get the NOAA Weather App installed on your phone. This will help you receive weather-related news and alerts directly to your phone. The best part is that it’s free of charge and this service is truly priceless!
- First and foremost, you should become better prepared for a disaster that occurs in your town. I know disaster preparedness can become overwhelming, so I’ve put together easy-to-follow guides to give you a kick start. Find the guides to each disaster type right here.
- Second, you should get involved with your community. Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is a great organization where you learn how to take care of yourself, your loved ones, and your neighbors during an emergency. The best part is that you’ll get to meet like-minded people who can help you in your preparedness journey. Find your local CERT group right here.
- If you have an organization or resources that could be given to the public for assistance during a natural disaster, check out West Virginia VOAD— this stands for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This is an organized group of people that work together to properly allocate resources to those in need following a disaster.
- Finally, the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has some resources you may find useful to help you during the process of recovery.
If you can learn anything from this article, I hope that you understand the importance of preparing yourself, your loved ones, and your home to withstand a disaster. There are mitigation tools that I discuss in each of the guides, as well as information on how to become prepared so you don’t panic when a disaster threatens your community.
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