As a slew of severe winter storms continued to wreak havoc in many coastal and inland areas of California over the weekend, the White House on Saturday declared a major disaster in three California counties.
Bringing some context to the California catastrophe, which has caused widespread flooding, landslides and at least 19 deaths, USA TODAY analyzed three decades of Federal Emergency Management Agency data on major presidential disaster declarations. The current declaration covers Merced, Sacramento and Santa Cruz counties and includes funds and support for government agencies and individuals.
The data for 1990-2022 show that while California counties had plenty of disaster declarations due to a combination of floods and wildfires, other parts of the nation have frequently been on FEMA’s radar as well.
What are America’s top disaster counties?
Lawrence County, Kentucky, and Caddo County, Oklahoma, are tied for the most major disaster declarations since 1990 with 30.
Kentucky’s Lawrence County is also tied with Knott County, Kentucky, and Okmulgee County, Oklahoma, for the most severe storm disaster declarationswith 18. Oklahoma’s Caddo County is close behind with 17.
Lawrence and Caddo counties have also been battered by floods, ice storms and tornadoes in their run-up of disaster declarations.
About half of all U.S. counties have had at least 10 federally declared disasters. Here are the counties with the most:
- Lawrence County, Kentucky (30)
- Caddo County, Oklahoma (30)
- Johnson County, Kentucky (28)
- Perry County, Kentucky (28)
- Magoffin County, Kentucky (28)
- Logan County, Oklahoma (27)
- Breathitt County, Kentucky (26)
- Lafourche Parish, Louisiana (26)
- Floyd County, Kentucky (26)
- Owsley County, Kentucky (26)
- Canadian County, Oklahoma (26)
- Okmulgee County, Oklahoma (26)
Bear in mind that the number and scope of presidential disaster declarations in each state reflect not only the volume of extreme weather events but also the vagaries of federal disaster funding rules. Some states have been more frequently subject to statewide declarations, and in these cases USA TODAY’s analysis added a declaration for each county’s numbers.
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Which counties had the fewest disasters?
Almost every county in the U.S. – 98% – has been the site of at least one major federally declared disaster in the past 33 years.
The 50 counties that escaped a single disaster declaration are primarily in the Intermountain West: Nevada (six counties); Utah (six counties); Idaho (five counties); Wyoming (five counties); and Colorado (one county). Michigan (26) and Wisconsin (one) were the two states east of the Rockies with counties that had no disasters.
Note that USA TODAY’s county analysis excluded disaster declarations related to the coronavirus pandemic, which covered every state, as well as those for terrorism, fishing losses and “human causes.”
What are the most common disasters?
Severe storms have been listed as the cause of more than 900 major disasters across the U.S. since 1990, more than any other type of natural event, according to the FEMA data. Floods and hurricanes follow with about 300 and 200 disaster declarations, respectively.
How often has California experienced major disasters?
USA TODAY’s analysis does not include the flooding in 2023. But destruction from winter storms, high winds and landslides has led presidents to declare major disasters in California a dozen times since 1990.
Santa Barbara County, which has been hit particularly hard by the recent “atmospheric rivers” arriving over the state, has seen eight major disaster declarations for winter storms and landslides since 1990, the analysis found. Heavy downpours can cause mudslides when they saturate hillsides that have been scorched by wildfires. Five years ago in Montecito, a coastal city in Santa Barbara County, 23 people were killed when a mudslide plowed through homes and businesses.
When counting all disaster declarations, including fires and other events, Los Angeles County had the most of any in California with 21 declarations in the past 33 years.
Is climate change making things worse?
Because disaster declarations are not a direct measure of extreme weather conditions, FEMA data can’t address this question directly. But the number of disaster declarations generally has trended higher than in the 1990s.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week announced there were 18 disasters costing $1 billion or more in 2022, the third most on record behind 2020 and 2021. NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad said climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as severe storms, floods and fires. The agency released the map below plotting each of the disasters from last year.