Since 1960, counties have been the focus of disaster declarations by the federal government more than 50,000 times. No individual county has had more such declarations than Los Angeles County, which has seen 72 such declarations over that period — more than one a year.
The motivations for those declarations have been diverse: for the occasional earthquake, as you would expect, and sometimes for freezing, which you wouldn’t. Most of the declarations, though, have been for fires, including three this month alone. Often, only Los Angeles County is affected by the fire, but about 40 percent of the time that Los Angeles has been the target of a declaration, other counties have been, too.
If we map out the number of disaster declarations in each county, Los Angeles stands out — as do the counties that surround it. Los Angeles is home to millions of people and billions of dollars of structures and infrastructure. But it’s also home to earthquakes, fires and flooding.
You can also see how the declarations have accrued over time on the lower animation. (On this animation and those below, dots representing one declaration are scattered randomly in a county’s boundaries.)
The publicly available data from FEMA (which predate FEMA’s own creation) shows how the number of declarations began to surge in about 1990, mostly as a function of the number of severe storms that prompt disaster declarations. This isn’t necessarily a function of more storms and may reflect a shift in the number of declarations issued. It is the case, though, that the number of heavy precipitation storms has increased across the United States in recent years, a trend tied to the warming climate.
The spike in 2005 was related to several large-scale disasters: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; and an extreme wildfire threat that affected Texas. Those 50,000-plus disaster declarations cover county declarations from about 4,000 different events.
The cumulative total since 1960 looks like this. The post-1990 surge is more obvious here.
That the FEMA data breaks out declarations by type allows us to see where particular threats exist. Fires, for example, are a significant problem in California and Texas, as we’ve noted. But they’re also a consistent problem in other parts of the West. The first several fire declarations in the 1960s focused on fires near the Washington state-Idaho border.
Tornadoes are similarly regional. Lots of disaster declarations are in Oklahoma, as you would expect, but the county with the most tornado-related disaster declarations is Arkansas’s Lonoke County, just east of Little Rock.
Hurricanes and storms are more universal across the country but heavily concentrated on the Gulf Coast.
Two things leap out on the map of the most common disaster declarations for flooding. The first is the large number of declarations along the North Dakota-Minnesota border. That’s the location of the Red River, which has had a number of major flood events in the past 60 years.
If you look carefully, though, you can pick out the counties adjacent to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, branching out in the center-right portion of the map. The mouth of the Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, is also obvious on this map.
Another disaster type that’s heavily regional? Freezing events and blizzards. Yes, freezes happen in Los Angeles County, but they happen a lot in Western New York — as do blizzards that blow in from the west, picking up moisture from Lake Erie. (I grew up in Rochester, N.Y.; I can vouch for this personally.)
Those storms strike elsewhere in the country (like Oklahoma) but are much more common in the Northeast.
Even in New York, though, there have been more disaster declarations because of storms than snow. There’s also that big category of “other,” which includes a lot of things. One in New York is the 9/11 attacks, identified dryly in the FEMA documentation as “FIRES AND EXPLOSIONS.”
The state with the most declarations per county in the FEMA data is Texas. About half of the declarations in that state (and its hundreds of counties) are from storms. About a quarter are from fires.
In Louisiana, it’s mostly storms and flooding, giving it the 10th most declarations of any state.
In North Carolina, storms and snow. (North Carolina has had the eighth most declarations in the FEMA data.)
Oklahoma, the state with the fifth-highest number of declarations, is a mix: storms, freezing, flooding, fires, tornadoes.
Despite how many disasters there have been in Los Angeles specifically, California is ranked 21st in the number of declarations there have been since 1960. It’s a fairly even mix: storms, flooding and fires.
It is, however, home to more than 11 percent of the county-level disaster declarations for fires in the FEMA data set.
The data we used for this analysis was pulled from the FEMA website on Tuesday. Since then, there has been another fire disaster declared: The Easy Fire, just a few miles west of Los Angeles County.