D.C.’s Maryland suburbs among nation’s lowest natural disaster risk areas, analysis finds

Trulia, the real estate web portal, says residents from Bethesda to Frederick have less to worry about compared to most U.S. metropolitan areas when it comes to natural hazards.

The Bethesda to Frederick corridor ranks 5th among the nation’s “lowest risk” metro areas for extreme weather, wildfire and earthquake catastrophes, Trulia has concluded.

Trulia conducted this natural hazard analysis to help home buyers determine what cities might avoid the worst from mother nature.  Its interactive mapping tool allows users to determine what areas are at greatest and least risk of different natural hazards, in addition to overlays that reveal localized information about home values, crime, school ratings, and commuting times.

Taking the weather, wildfire and earthquake hazards together, here is Trulia’s ranking of the top 10 “lower risk” cities for natural disasters:

10. Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, Mich.
9. Denver
8. Chicago
7. Allentown, Pa.
6. Dayton, Ohio
5. Bethesda-Rockville-Frederick, Md.
4. Buffalo, N.Y.
3. Akron, Ohio
2. Cleveland
1. Syracuse, N.Y.

The Bethesda to Frederick corridor falls in a sweet spot – with relatively low risk from tornadoes, major hurricanes, and large earthquakes. Here are Trulia’s national maps of these hazards (hat tip: John Metcalfe, Atlantic Cities):




In addition to the above hazards, destructive wildfires seldom threaten the Bethesda-Rockville area and the flood risk is mostly confined to small communities adjacent to rivers and streams. See Trulia’s detailed localized flood risk map below.


Trulia’s flood risk map for the District and suburban Maryland (Trulia.com)

Analysts at Trulia stress “lower” risk for disasters does not mean no risk.

“Notice that we’re not calling these “safe” or “low-risk” metros [nevermind Yahoo's headline on the analysis: "Top 10 Safest U.S. Cities From Natural Disasters"],” writes Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko. “It’s all relative, and every metro has some risk. Even the 10 lower-risk metros, above, all have some natural disasters in their distant or recent past.”

In the last few years alone, the Bethesda-Rockville corridor has been affected by a tornado in Rockville, hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the June 2012 derecho, excessively hot summers, a crippling snowstorm, and an earthquake. Of course, as disruptive as all of these events were, the region has avoided the kind of widespread destruction and fatalities you might see from a direct hit from a big hurricane on the coast, a wildfire in the West, or a large tornado event in the Plains.

While relatively immune from certain kinds of extreme weather, you may notice many of the “lower risk” cities in the above list are in the northeastern quarter of the nation which face severe winters. The analysis does not take into account cold weather hazards, which can be costly and fatal. Trulia’s Kolko acknowledges the snowstorm omission in his commentary.

“What upstate New York and northern Ohio lack in tornadoes and wildfires, they make up for in snow,” Kolko notes. “While winter weather may be more predictable than earthquakes or hurricanes, harsh winters bring their own risks: blizzards, frostbite, and falling on the ice.”

Of all the “lower risk” metro areas identified, residents of suburban Maryland are paying the most to live shielded from nature’s wrath, relatively speaking. The Bethesda-Frederick average cost per square foot is $174 compared to $129 in Denver, the next most expensive lower risk city. The cheapest lower risk city to live in? Dayton, Ohio at $72 per square foot.

But low housing costs and disaster risk doesn’t necessarily make Dayton attractive for home buyers. Economic growth is a major driver.

“Dayton has fewer jobs today than twenty years ago (a distinction shared only with Detroit and New Orleans, among the 100 largest metros),” writes Kolko.

Kolko adds the Bethesda-Frederick, Denver and Allentown are the only 3 of the top 10 lower risk metro areas with strong economic growth in the last 20 years.

Related: Virginia: the 9th leading state for costly weather events

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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Jason Samenow · August 29, 2013