May 30, 2024
The nation's deadliest wildfire – with 100-plus fatalities on Maui as the count grows – came in a state known for its natural beauty, not natural disasters.

If you were going to guess where the next major American natural disaster would happen, Hawaii wouldn’t be high on your list.

You’d most likely bet on California. Or Texas.

Look at what my trusty spreadsheet, filled with some federal climate-risk stats, tells us about the odds of where Mother Nature’s wrath may fall.

The nation’s deadliest wildfire – with 100-plus fatalities on Maui as the count grows – came in a state known for its natural beauty, not natural disasters. The cause is yet unknown, but it was likely a fatal mix of dry conditions, brisk winds and human error.

Disaster history tells us a catastrophe of this scope is a Hawaiian rarity. Since 1980, the state was hit by just one disaster costing $1 billion or more – Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Only the District of Columbia had fewer billion-dollar events in this grim ranking – none – that tracks damages from wind, precipitation, heat or cold, and earthquakes.

California, as a comparison, has had 46 billion-dollar losses in the 44 years tracked. But that still ranked just 29th among the states even as Maui reminds Californains of the November 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people as its destroyed the town of Paradise.

The top spot for big-cost disasters was Texas at 166, then Georgia at 115, Illinois at 112, North Carolina at 109, and Alabama at 106, Missouri at 106 and Oklahoma at 106.

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Next, consider what a federal disaster risk index tells us. Hawaii on this scorecard was projected to have only the 37th-highest potential for natural disasters among the states, with an estimated cost of $159 million a year.

California was No. 1 at $6.8 billion. Next came Texas at $4.6 billion, Florida at $1.7 billion, Louisiana at $1.1 billion, and North Carolina at $1 billion. By the way, you’re safest – by this math – in Rhode Island with $16 million in potential damage, followed by the District of Columbia at $17 million, Vermont at $25 million, Delaware at $34 million, and New Hampshire at $42 million.

And, yes, the government forecast also includes projected deaths from natural disasters.

Hawaii ranked 40th among the states, with five deaths forecast per year while California was second at 120. The highest risk was found in Texas at 150. After California came Missouri at 65, Florida at 60, and Illinois at 54. The lowest was Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, D.C. at 1.

The Maui wildfires are a harsh reminder of the challenges presented by climate volatility. The disaster reinforces the need for diligent work on prevention and preparation, especially in high-risk places like California.

Plus, the environment’s great unknown is scary. Mother Nature doesn’t care much about weather history or what computer models might tell us.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at [email protected]