September 19, 2017 — The triple whammy from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are causing a lot of people to reconsider where they retire. Some previous best places to retire might end up on the worst places to retire lists instead! But hurricanes are not the only natural disaster that can ruin your retirement – temperature extremes, earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires, and flooding can be devastating too. Now, as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise to the highest levels in the history of the planet, our ice caps melt and sea levels rise, the dangers to where you decide from natural disasters are important considerations. it might be just as critical as cost of living, taxes, culture, climate, proximity of friends and family, and recreational opportunities.
In this article we will first talk about the kinds of weather and natural issues that could be detrimental to your retirement. While phenomena like high humidity are inconvenient, others are deadly serious. Further on in the article we will give some ideas on what you can do to mitigate your risks. This is the second in a series, the first part was “Should Retiring Snowbirds Rent or Buy: Hurricane Irma Offers Lessons“.
Hurricanes. The hurricane belt runs east from Texas along the Gulf Coast, all the way around both coasts of Florida and its interior, and then goes up the Atlantic coast all the way to Maine. As we publish this article there are 2 active major hurricanes: Jose (at one point a Category 5) is dying out in the Atlantic after inflicting catastrophic damage, and Maria is striking the Caribbean with Category 5 force. Hurricane Katrina caused $133.8 in property damage and 1833 Deaths in 2005, the same year that Wilma flooded much of the Florida Keys. Here is a link to NOAA’s site on hurricanes.
In an average season we see 10 named storms of which 6 are hurricanes, and 2.5 of those are Category 3 or higher. So far in 2017 there have been 13 named storms and 7 hurricanes, with 4 of those a Category 3 or higher. But hurricanes are certainly not the only natural disaster that can wreak havoc on your retirement.
Humidity. Many people have a negative reaction to high humidity, while for others it is a non-issue. For the most part, however, it is not life-threatening. Cities along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida and up through the Carolinas are notorious for high humidity.
Temperature extremes. It’s no secret that Alaska, northern New England including New York State, and the northern mid-west can be bone chilling much of the year with their long winters and very short summers. Arizona, southern Texas, and the Gulf Coast are paralyzingly hot during their long summers. Heat is a deadly killer compared to most other disasters – an estimated 10,000 people died in a 1980 heat wave, and 502 died in a 1999 heat wave. The planet is getting warmer, so this problem will only get worse.
Tornadoes. With over 384 people killed, the 2011 Super Outbreak set a record for the worst tornado stretch in U.S. history. Tornadoes are quite common in the Midwest and Southeast U.S., but can and do occur just about anywhere, including as a component of many hurricanes. The so-called “Tornado Alley” stretches in the middle of the country from North Texas to Canada.
Earthquakes plague many parts of the U.S. and Canada. There have been 2 major earthquakes in Mexico this September. Although California and the Northwest are the most common places for earthquakes, they are not unheard of in other parts of the country including the Yellowstone area, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, New York State, and Georgia. Earthquakes not only cause horrible properly damage but can kill as well. Southern California has a 1 on 100 chance of a very serious earthquake in any given year. Uncontrollable fires and extended power outages are an attendant risk of earthquakes.
Floods. Cities and states along the Mississippi have some of our worst flooding problems, along with those regions drained by its tributaries from Minnesota to Louisiana to Tennessee and Pennsylvania. But flash floods can occur almost anywhere, as we have seen in Vermont, Colorado, and elsewhere. As sea levels rise coastal areas in the Southeast such as Charleston and almost all of Florida are increasingly inundated by unusually high tides. Many times the water floods in from underground.
Tsunamis, volcanoes, and mudslides can hit the west coast, including Hawaii.
Wildfires can occur anywhere, but are most common in the west and south. In 2017 much of Florida and Georgia were seriously affected by wildfires propelled by drought.
Very few safe harbors
The truth is that almost every area of the country is exposed to weather problems and natural disasters – there is no truly safe place and very few ideal regions. The New York Times reported 8 Metro areas with the lowest risk in its “Where to Live to Avoid a Natural Disaster“, using data from Sperling’s Best Places. All but one (Grand Junction, Colorado) are in Oregon or Washington State. Unfortunately many of the lowest risk cities have other, less dangerous weather issues like earthquakes or forest fires. Four of the 8 safe harbors, including Seattle, Salem (OR), and Corvallis (OR) are some of the cloudiest and rainiest places in the U.S.
So what can you do
Unless you decide to retire on one of the few places in the world that are totally safe from natural disasters, you have to choose carefully among those that are less safe. Fortunately there are some practical steps you can take to minimize the dangers. We will explore some of those here, and hope that our Members will be able to suggest others.
– Move to one of the States with the history of the fewest natural disasters. Those include much of Washington, Oregon, and upstate New York and Michigan, among others.
– Check out building codes and how your home was built. Building codes vary by state and city. Typically the newer your home the more advanced techniques it has incorporated in it – like roofs that are tied down, extra bracing in the framing, attachment to the foundation, etc. When your home was built is significant, as is the reputation of the builder (as it very hard for a lay person to assess how it was actually constructed).
– Use safer building materials and techniques. There are a number of things you can do to make your home stronger and more resistant to danger. If you live in an area with wildfires, choose concrete roofing tiles and siding. Get hurricane resistant windows or storm shutters – if a window is blown out by debris or wind your house can literally blow up in a hurricane. When buying a new home it is a lot easier to specify these things before it is finished, but retrofitting is always possible too.
– Move to an area with strict development rules. The State of Florida is among many jurisdictions that have eased restrictions on developers in recent years, e.g.; allowing them to build in more dangerous areas, fill in wetlands, and cover natural surfaces with impervious materials. The unexpectedly high flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is a good example of what happens when authorities allow unchecked development. When considering an area to move to, explore how weak development controls, which can lead to flooding and other problems, might lead to problems there.
– Stay away from coastal and other areas prone to flooding. FEMA has maps that rate the flooding risk just about everywhere in the country. Stay away from problem areas – even if it hasn’t flooded there yet!
– Get high! High above the ground, that is. Even if the building code specifies a certain height for new construction, we are now seeing 100 year storms and even 500 year storms. The standard used to be 12′ above sea level, now it is higher. Go high if building a home from scratch. When buying an existing home, its height above potential flood levels is one of the most important things of all to consider.
– Check out the area’s history of natural disasters. Fault lines, flooding, forest fires – these are all big problems. It is like marrying a partner with a history – be careful, some things can’t be changed!
– What is your evacuation plan? Florida and The Florida Keys are a good example of places with that carry evacuation risks. The State has had mandatory evacuations, and when they happen, limited roads mean monumental traffic jams, fuel shortages, and the inability to get back home to work on damage. The pace of recovery is slow because it is so hard to bring in relief. If the area is hard to evacuate from, think twice about moving there.
The Bottom Line
It is easy to fall in love a place and decide to retire there. But before you make that choice, consider what natural disaster risks it might harbor. If there are risks, is there anything you can do to mitigate them.
What do you think? Use the Comments section below to tell us about your weather and natural disaster concerns. Do you have a plan for how you can mitigate the risk of a natural disaster where you decide to retire.