America’s Red Zones: Where Natural Disasters Cluster and What It Means for You

Richard Long

Everyone knows that natural disasters aren’t spread evenly across the United States, rather they occur in the same places year after year.

This fact was given striking visualization in a recent New York Times article called “The Places in the U.S. Where Disaster Strikes Again and Again.”

The article and accompanying maps are well worth checking out, especially for anyone involved in business continuity and disaster recovery.

The article was based on an analysis of data from the Small Business Administration from between 2002 and 2017. It looks at places in the U.S. where businesses applied for loans to rebuild following natural disasters. However, the data provides a reliable window into where disasters cause the most damage overall.

As it turns out, the same tiny portion of the country is responsible for the vast majority of disaster losses year after year.

We all have a general sense of where natural disasters tend to happen, but the maps in the article make it dramatically clear where Mother Nature has positioned her bull’s-eyes.

In the main map accompanying the article, the Gulf Coast is packed with affected areas, to the point where it is paved almost solid with red and orange, the colors indicating where the greatest damage occurred. Ditto with the state of Florida, and to a lesser extent the rest of the East Coast all the way up to Maine. That’s all from hurricanes and other severe storms.

Then there are the flood-prone river systems of the Midwest, the parts in the central area of the country where tornadoes run wild, and the bits of the West Coast where fires and earthquakes are common.

Away from the Lower 48, Puerto Rico of course was hit hard during the period covered by the data, as was Hawaii—and this was before the current lava eruptions took place.

Which states are the least prone to natural disasters?

Looking at the map in the Times article, it appears New Mexico and Idaho were affected the least, with New Mexico having zero claims in the period covered by the data.

Here are few more interesting facts from the article:

  • 90% of the losses reflected in the data occurred in ZIP Codes containing less than 20% of the population.
  • Worldwide, only 4% of hurricanes that make landfall strike the U.S.; however, 60% of worldwide damage from them happens here.
  • Relief programs and subsidized insurance incentivize people to build in disaster-prone areas. Unfortunately, the incentives work very well.
  • Even as development becomes concentrated in places such as Florida and the Gulf Coast, the rise in sea level caused by climate change is making disasters more frequent and severe.

What does all this mean for you as a business continuity professional?

No doubt, if your organization has facilities in vulnerable areas, you’re already well aware of that fact.

But perhaps the Times article and this post can be a reminder for you to make sure your recovery plans are where they should be.

In doing this, the main things for you to think about are, as always:

  • Building access. What if one of your facilities becomes unusable for a period of time? How will you continue to function? Have your remote work capabilities been tested and verified? Do the employees have the necessary software on their laptops to enable them to work from home?
  • Information technology. Has the resilience of your application and data centers been verified? Are your IT disaster recovery plans ready to execute?
  • Ancillary technology. What will you do if the phone lines and cell service in your area go down?
  • Backup communications. What’s your backup communication strategy? Text? Email? What’s the risk of that going down?
  • Connectivity. What would do if your systems remain functional but your ISP is impacted?

We’ve talked about a lot of these issues in recent posts. For details, check out:

The Neglected Side of Business Continuity: Problems Not Related to IT

Command Performance: Using the Incident Command System (ICS)

That’s for organizations that are located in disaster-prone areas.

What if your company is not situated in such an area?

Well, for starters: Lucky you. However, this is not grounds for being complacent.

Given the interconnected nature of today’s economy, you could still be stung by a disaster which happens elsewhere.

Think about your critical dependencies: Do you have any critical suppliers located in areas vulnerable to natural disasters? If so, what will you do if their operations are disrupted by a storm, flood, or fire?

How about any customers who are located in vulnerable areas? Could a disaster affecting their home area lead to a greater or more urgent demand for your services?

Obviously, the above points also apply to organizations that are located in vulnerable areas. A company can both be in a vulnerable spot and depend on suppliers who are likewise located in a disaster-prone area. Double jeopardy might not be allowed in law, but it happens all the time when it comes to organizations’ exposure to natural disasters.

 


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Finally, keep in mind that, while it’s the fires and floods that grab the headlines, most of the time when our clients face a disruption, it’s from a situation other than a natural disaster, one that is confined to their own property and organization.

For more information on this reality, check out Beyond Hurricanes: 4 Examples of Recent, Real-Life Business Emergencies, a post we did a few months ago.

Whether you are situated in one of America’s red zones—or sitting pretty in the 90 percent of the country where natural disasters rarely occur—you should give at least some thought to your organization’s vulnerability to natural upheavals, then take the steps necessary to minimize the disruptions they can cause.

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