Wisconsin’s unbelievable landscapes, lakes, streams, and rivers makes it a top-choice state for tourism and outdoorsy people. Even though the highest altitude in the state doesn’t quite reach 2,000 feet, all four seasons are clearly experienced anyway. And well, with the good seasons sometimes comes the bad. You can’t have flowers without some rain.
Beautiful Wisconsin experiences many of nature’s climatic ups and downs. Here’s what you can expect in the Badger State!
What natural disasters does Wisconsin have?
Wisconsin’s most common natural disasters include severe storms, floods, tornadoes, winter storms, landslides, and power outages. Other less significant disasters include droughts, wildfires, and earthquakes.
Between 1953 and 2019, Wisconsin declared 50 major disasters, of which severe storms and floods happened the most according to FEMA.
1. Severe Storms
Wisconsin receives many severe storms each year. Severe storms include thunderstorms, precipitation, strong winds, hail, and fog. The northern areas are a little milder than the south. On average, the National Weather Service issues 30 storm warnings to the regions near Lake Michigan and 40 to the southwestern region. The state averages almost 33 inches of rainfall annually, making it the 33rd wettest US state. Also, Wisconsin can also expect about 300,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per year, with an average fatality of one.
The worst storm records in Wisconsin history include wind gusts of 135mph in Flambeau River State Forest and hail that measured up to 5.7” in diameter!
Being prepared for severe storms is very important since they are one of the states’ most recurring natural disasters. Preparedness should include retrofitting your home to protect it from flying debris, protecting your car during hail storms, and staying indoors while the storm passes. Some storms can be brief, so you should wait at least half an hour between each thunder and lightning combo to resume any outdoor work or play. For more severe storm safety tips, you can check out our guide here.
Flooding also happens a lot in Wisconsin, in fact, floods are known to be catastrophic. They account for millions of dollars of damage every year. In 2018, a summer storm caused an estimated $206 million worth of damage. Floods are caused by excessive rainfall, rapid snowmelt, ice jams, poor water drainage, saturated soil, as well as these factors causing the rivers, lakes, or ponds to overflow. The places at a higher risk of becoming flooded are the regions within central and northern Wisconsin.
One of the worst floods in Wisconsin’s recent history occurred in the summer of 2008. During this flood, thousands of businesses and homes were partially damaged or completely destroyed. Three fatalities were recorded, and 31 counties were impacted.
Flooding can cause extensive damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. It’s important to know the flood risk in your area and take preventative measures to protect your property. In some cases, it would help a lot to put sand barriers around the main entrances or vulnerable areas of the home. Everyone should also keep an evacuation kit handy in case that a flood forces you to leave your home until the waters recede. Do not cross floodwaters, especially if there’s a current— a large number of fatalities are attributed to drowning victims that stepped into moving water. We made a complete guide on flood preparedness— take a look here!
Wisconsin has approximately 1100 tornadoes per year, of which 22 of them are considered killer tornadoes. The majority of tornadoes have an intensity of 1.1. on the EF scale. On a yearly average, 73 people die because of tornado-related causes. Some areas, like southwestern Wisconsin experience about one tornado every day! Roughly 24 to 32% of tornadoes occur at night, so the potential causalities are higher since people may not be able to get to safety as quickly.
The worst tornado to hit Wisconsin was an F5 tornado that happened in New Richmond on June 12, 1899. This tornado was responsible for destroying more than 300 buildings, injuring 125 people, killing 117, and causing more than $300,000 worth of damage (in today’s time, that would translate to approximately $9 million). Wisconsin has experienced three more F-5 tornadoes since then— one in 1958, one in 1984, and one in 1996.
The intensity of a tornado is measured after the tornado passes though. Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict whether the next tornado you experience will be of low or high intensity, so you should become prepared for the worst that can happen, and hope that it doesn’t amount to that. There are several things you can do to become prepared for a tornado, such as retrofitting your home, making a storm-proof shelter, preparing an emergency kit, and developing an action plan with your family. Our tornado guide goes into all the details— you can find it here if you’re interested.
4. Winter Storms
Winter weather is almost synonymous with the name Wisconsin, would you agree? The combination of snow, sleet, freezing rain, blizzards, high winds, bitter cold temperatures, and ice makes this state prone to many winter-related disasters. Lake-effect snow is a lot less common but can occur if the wind is blowing from the east or Northeast.
One of the worst storms to hit Wisconsin in recent years occurred in March 2011 when some parts of the state (mainly the central region) received up to 18 inches of snow, sleet, and ice in a single storm. It was recorded as the biggest storm in the last 100 years.
Wisconsin paints the perfect picture of a winter wonderland but with the change of scenery should also come a change of driving patterns and awareness habits. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the state estimates that each year roughly 500,000 vehicle accidents, 5,000 injuries, and 45 fatalities are attributed to winter weather. Stay safe on winter roads by driving slower than the regular speed limit, especially during the days of high snow accumulation and strong gusty winds. Always keep a distance between you and the driver ahead of you to prevent rapid braking and skidding. Find more winter safety tips here.
Every state and county can be susceptible to landslides if the conditions are right. Some major contributors to landslides, mudslides, and rockslides include heavy precipitation, temperature fluctuations when the soil freezes, thereby expanding, and defrosts, thereby becoming softer. Over the last few years, technology has seen some advancement in predicting landslides that occur along the Wisconsin coastline. The goal lies more in estimating when they will occur, rather than how they can be prevented. Since the topography of the state is constantly changing-- due to the weather and human intervention (infrastructure, roads, etc)-- it makes it difficult to determine which areas are going to see a landslip first. Geologists oftentimes identify areas that are vulnerable in order to help the people understand what the risk level is in their community. But remember, this is ever-changing.
One of the worst landslides happened across multiple states near the Mississippi River on August 20, 2007. The epic rainfall washed away entire homes, roads, bridges, flooded creeks, valleys, and carved out canyons.
If your community is located near a landslip-prone area, you should consider implementing strategies to protect your home as well as have an emergency kit ready to go in case you need to evacuate. Always stay tuned to the local media and NOAA weather for alerts and warnings pertaining to heavy rainfall and rapid snowmelt, since these two things greatly contribute to mudslides. Learn more about landslide mitigation and safety here.
6. Power Outages
Severe weather is one of the main reasons that homes lose power. During high winds, heavy rain, snowstorms, tornadoes, floods, landslips, and any other powerful disaster, the power lines may get damaged. This is very common byproduct of natural (and manmade) disasters. In 2007, the average power outage duration for Wisconsin was 3 hours. Not having power for a few hours is no big deal for most, but imagine having to deal with it for one or two weeks straight? Then, to top it off, add harsh weather conditions to that scenario!
Becoming prepared is a must. You should always keep some food, water, and alternative power supplies to help you overcome those days when your heater won’t work, or your toilet won’t flush. Find out how you can become prepared for a long-term power outage right here!
7. Extreme Heat and Drought
When you think of Wisconsin, heat waves and droughts may not immediately come to mind. But this state experiences many weather extremes and heat is one of them. Heat waves are characterized by two or more days of high temperatures combined with high humidity. When the humidity is high, the temperature feels hotter than it really is. This impacts the body in many ways, and can cause rapid dehydration, as well as the internal organs to work harder in an effort to cool the body down. Young children and elderly folks are at a much higher risk of heat-related illnesses, but it can affect anyone. In Wisconsin, an average of 5 people die annually due to the heat.
One of the worst heatwaves in Wisconsin’s history (or two, I should say) occurred in the summer of 1995 when two heat waves claimed the lives of 145 people and put another 400 people in a position of extreme risk. The temperate and humidity made it feel like it was 120 degrees F!
Heat waves can be managed by using cooling pads, fans, and staying in an air-conditioned environment, especially in the heat of the day. Avoid strenuous exercise and outdoor work. Look for cooling centers in your area if your home does not have A/C, or go to public places like the library, movie theater, or a shopping mall. If you want more tips on becoming prepared for extreme heat, you can find some here. In the midst of long periods of high heat, seasons of drought are to be expected. Limit your water use to only the necessary amount during those times.
Just like some of the disasters previously mentioned, wildfires can occur anywhere. Wisconsin is no exception to the rule. The Department of Natural Resources sums up the yearly wildfire totals. In 2019, there were 704 fires that burned a combined total of 1,236.6 acres. Fires don’t pose the largest threat to the state, but they can enhance other disasters, such as landslides after heavy precipitation. They can also cause damage to homes, wildlife, ecosystems, and the environment.
The most devastating and deadliest wildfire in US history occurred on October 8, 1871. This fire was called the Peshtigo Fire. It burned down 1.2 million acres of land and killed 1,200 persons.
Many of the wildfires are caused by human activity. Therefore, it’s necessary to be more careful when camping, or doing anything that involves fires. During seasons of drought, especially, the risk is much higher. The fire danger is typically posted in wilderness areas. A high-risk should prompt people to be extra cautious, or even postpone camp bonfires or other activities, to prevent a fire from becoming uncontrolled.
Wisconsin has many fault lines but most of them are either inactive or deeply hidden below the ground. The state is likely to feel some shaking from significant earthquakes in nearby states, but it’s estimated that seismic events would not cause large-scale damage. The city that is most vulnerable to earthquakes, according to scientists, is Waukesha.
According to historical records, the strongest earthquake that took place in Wisconsin occurred on May 6, 1947. The shaker was not measured but it caused minor damage to the city of Milwaukee (the estimated epicenter) and nearby cities.
It’s rare to feel strong earthquakes in Wisconsin, but the shake can be enough to break windows and toss items around. Seismic building codes have not been adopted, so some infrastructure may also experience damage because of that. Still, the risk is said to be low.
Natural disaster resources for Wisconsin
If you made it this far, you’re probably wondering what’s next!? The disasters mentioned above can become very disruptive to our lives and that is why preparedness is key. These are some suggestions for where you can go from this point forward.
- Stay up-to-date with the current weather by downloading the NOAA Weather App on your phone.
- A great place to start your preparedness journey is by learning which disasters threaten your area the most. Once you know your risk, you should visit our disaster page where you can find the complete guides to each disaster type. All disasters do not create equal damage, so preparing for them will look a little different. These resources will point you in the right direction to mitigate possible damage from disasters and learn safety tips.
- You should also get involved with your community’s emergency team, otherwise known as CERT. This government-based organization does free classes, scenarios, and trainings to empower the community to become prepared. You’ll not only learn a lot for yourself and your family, but you will meet other like-minded people who live in your community. This is a great way to connect with others! Find your local CERT here.
- I know many people who want to help out after a disaster has occurred. Look no further than Wisconsin’s VOAD, which stands for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This is a volunteer-run organization that gathers resources from the community in order to allocate them properly after an emergency has occurred. If you have services or knowledge you can provide, the organization will notify you when you’re needed.
- The Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs is another great place to find government resources and training materials to help you during each phase of a disaster.
I hope you learned what disasters are common in the Badger State as well as what to do next to prepare yourself and your loved ones. Begin preparing now because once the disaster occurs, it will be too late.
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