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  • Clif Harald

How Vulnerable is Your Community to Natural Hazards?


Among the many challenges of 2020, historic wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and heat waves inflicted tens of billions of dollars in damage across the U.S. As the frequency and severity of natural disasters trend upward globally, the resilience and economic vitality of many communities are challenged more than ever.


If you’ve wondered how vulnerable your community is to natural hazards – and how resilient it is when they strike – you’ll want to check out the new National Risk Index released by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).


FEMA’s National Risk Index is an online, interactive mapping app that identifies communities most at risk to 18 natural hazards. It visually depicts natural hazard risks for counties or census tracts and ranks them based on Expected Annual Loss from disasters, and on Community Resilience and Social Vulnerability.

Interesting takeaways from the rankings of three counties in Colorado – Boulder, Denver, and Larimer:


  • The Expected Annual Loss (EAL) from natural disasters in all three counties was rated relatively high or very high compared to other counties in the U.S. They ranked between the 95th and 99th percentiles among all U.S. communities. (EAL is a measure of the expected dollar loss of building value, population, and agricultural value each year due to natural hazards. Lower percentiles are better.)


  • The Community Resilience of the three counties was rated relatively moderate by FEMA compared to other counties in the U.S. Their percentile rankings were 41st, 44th, and 50th for Denver, Boulder, and Larimer counties, respectively. Compared to all counties in Colorado, they ranked higher – 61st, 72nd, and 83rd percentiles, respectively. (Community Resilience measures a community’s ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to the impacts of natural hazards. Higher percentiles are better.)


  • On Social Vulnerability, the counties rated very low or relatively low. Boulder and Larimer Counties were in the 3rd and 9th percentile, respectively, while Denver was in the 39th percentile. (Social Vulnerability measures the susceptibility of social groups to the adverse impacts of natural hazards. Lower percentiles are better.)


  • River flooding, lightning, strong winds, and tornadoes were found by FEMA to present very high Expected Annual Loss exposure to the three counties. Wildfires present relatively high risk of losses for Boulder and Larimer counties, but significantly lower than flooding and other hazards.

As Coloradans anticipate the challenges associated with these natural hazard risks, policy leaders are calling for enhanced state and federal resiliency planning.


Colorado Governor Polis spoke earlier this month to the state’s 2021 Wildfire Outlook and Preparedness Plan. “It is not just a fire season but instead the risk is now year-round. We are taking a more proactive approach to battling wildfires because these trends and drought conditions are not an anomaly, they are a harbinger of the future.” The state is expected to see above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation from now into August.


Similarly, Colorado's Congressman Joe Neguse is asking for federal support for communities still recovering from the 2020 wildfire season by including his Climate Resilient Communities Act and Wildfire Recovery Act in the upcoming infrastructure package from Congress. “As Congress works to craft comprehensive infrastructure legislation, it’s important that climate change and the needs of Western communities working to rebuild from wildfires, are considered,” said Congressman Neguse.


This post barely scratches the surface of FEMA’s thought-provoking approach to assessing vulnerability and resilience and how Colorado leaders are responding. I’d encourage you to look into how FEMA assesses your community – and how your policy makers are addressing your risks of natural hazards. If you do, let me know what you learn.