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Disaster Declarations in New England

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

Recently USA Today published the results of an investigation into the amount of federal disaster declarations declared in every county in the United States since 1990. This investigation focused solely on natural disasters, so declarations for the COVID-19 pandemic (which covered every inch of the United States), terrorism as well as fishing losses are excluded from the following numbers.


Another thing to keep in mind is that, like most US laws, the rules for disaster declaration funding have changed over time. Furthermore, the maps below only show federal disaster declarations that were signed off by the president at the time. A state can declare a disaster to direct funds to a specific area of the state, but not request federal funds.



Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, landslides, blizzards, and earthquakes. The United States has experienced just about every type of natural disaster imaginable. While New England does not experience every natural disaster, it does face (or is threatened by) large, damaging storms. They've hit New England in the past, in the present, and they will hit in the future.


Different parts of New England are more vulnerable to disasters than others. The New England coastline, particularly Cape Cod and the islands, has been pummeled by powerful nor'easters and tropical cyclones. More severe thunderstorm and tornado declarations are made for inland areas. Vermont has experienced the greatest number of flood disasters.


The USA Today study focused closer on six categories of disaster: flood, severe storm, tornado, tropical cyclone, snowstorm and wildfire. Of these categories, only one has not had any impact on New England: wildfire. There has not been a single declaration for wildfire in New England since 1990. Wildfires do occur in New England, however, they tend to remain small and are contained quickly.



NOTE: On the maps below, counties in orange have had at least one declaration while the county (or counties) in red have had the most declarations of the category listed.


TORNADO DECLARATIONS


Tornado is the next category with the fewest declarations. Only four disasters have been declared for this type of weather in New England since 1990. Every summer, multiple tornadoes touch down in New England, but they rarely exceed EF1 intensity. Since 2008, New England Storm Center has been tracking every tornado in New England. Only three of the 133 tornadoes that have touched down in New England since 2008 have been EF2+.


The EF3 tornado in 2011. Photo: Matt Putzel

Two of these declarations are related to the massive EF3 tornado that struck the greater Springfield, MA area during the June 1, 2011 outbreak. This tornado is by far the strongest to strike New England since the Great Barrington tornado in 1995, which, interestingly, was not declared a federal disaster.


The tornado in Springfield caused over $200 million in damage, killed three people, and injured 200 more. The tornado was on the ground for over an hour, which is unusual for a tornado in New England, which typically lasts only minutes.


The two Connecticut declarations were for three tornadoes that struck Fairfield and New Haven counties on May 15, 2018. The three EF1 tornadoes, along with a macroburst that also occurred in the area, caused significant damage in a handful of towns.


Some towns, such as Winstead, Barkhamsted, Oxford, and Beacon Falls, spent months cleaning up and repairing damage. A fourth tornado was also confirmed over the Barkhamsted Reservoir, but it caused no damage. With 19 tornadoes touching down in New England, 2018 was the year with the most tornadoes since 2008.



SNOWSTORM DECLARATIONS


The next category is snowstorm disasters. Just over half of New England's 67 counties, including all of southern New England, have declared at least one winter disaster. While snowstorms occur more frequently in New England than any other major weather event, they rarely cause the type of damage that would necessitate federal assistance. Furthermore, New England is well prepared for heavy snowfalls.


Water rescue in Boston during the Blizzard of 2018. Photo: John Cetrino (EPA-EFE)

When a snowstorm disaster is declared, it is usually for wind or coastal flood damage rather than snowfall. This is why all of southern New England has at least one declaration while northern New England only has a few since winds are not as strong and, obviously, coastal flooding is not a factor inland.


The Blizzards of 2003, 2005, 2013, 2015, and 2018 were among the notable snowstorms that received declarations. It's worth noting that USA Today only looked at snowstorms. The ice storms of 1998 and 2008 were declared disasters, but they are not depicted on the map.



FLOOD DECLARATIONS


Mother's Day Flood in New Hampshire. Photo: Phatbuzz (YouTube)

Almost three-quarters of counties have declared a flood disaster. There have been 135 flood declarations since 1990, with Washington County, Vermont leading the way with 7. Flooding is a major issue in New England due to the region's many winding rivers, streams, and varied terrain, as well as heavy rains and snow melt.


There have been a few floods that have wreaked havoc in New England. As the waters filled the region, the floods of 1996, 1998, and 2006 caused massive amounts of road and property damage. Vermont, in particular, is prone to severe flooding.


The state's unique geography has resulted in some of the region's worst flooding disasters, caused by intense rainfall, snow melt, ice jams, or a combination of the three. The historic floods in Vermont in 1927, 1973, 2011 and just this past summer are among the worst. Since Tropical Storm Irene caused the 2011 flood, it is classified as a "tropical cyclone" rather than a flood for disaster declarations.


In 2023, a deluge dumped nearly 10 inches of rain across the state. This led to thousands of homes, businesses, roads and other infrastructure to become damaged. Scenes of destruction in Vermont were very similar to that of Irene in 2011, which was considered to be New England's worst disaster over the past couple decades.



TROPICAL CYCLONE DECLARATIONS


Over 90% of counties in the region have declared at least one tropical cyclone disaster. There have been 129 declarations in total. Since tropical cyclones are among the most powerful storms on the planet, whenever one winds up here, a federal disaster is declared. Even a weak one will cause flooding, wind damage, and major coastal issues.


Hurricane Bob damage in Massachusetts. Photo: Steve Heaslip (Cape Cod Times)

The most recent hurricane landfall occurred in 1991, when Bob passed over Rhode Island and Cape Cod as a category 2. Of course, a storm does not have to make landfall in order to have an impact on the region.


Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey in 2012, but had widespread effects across much of New England. Tropical Storm Henri made the most recent landfall in 2021. This storm did not have the predicted impact, but it did cause enough damage in Connecticut to warrant federal assistance.


Tropical Storm Irene, as mentioned in the flood section, caused one of the worst floods in Vermont history. Although this storm did not make landfall in New England, it did pass through Massachusetts and Vermont.


Irene was declared a disaster across the entire state, and this is Vermont's only tropical disaster declaration since 1990. Irene's flooding in Vermont is most likely the worst natural disaster to hit New England this century.

Tropical Storm Irene damage in Vermont. Photo: Vyto Starinskas (AP)


SEVERE STORM DECLARATIONS


Severe thunderstorm declarations have covered the entirety of New England. New England's 67 counties have a total of 497 declarations for this type of weather, which is on pace with the county as a whole. Over 900 declarations for severe storms have been made in the US since 1990, which is more than 3 times the second highest, flooding.


Thunderstorm damage in Maine, 2019. Photo: Maine Forest Rangers

Even though these storms are small and brief, they can pack a powerful punch. Every summer, New England experiences a number of severe thunderstorm outbreaks. These storms affect every county in the region and can bring high winds, flooding, and frequent lightning strikes, all of which can cause significant damage to the communities they pass through. At 14, Orange County, Vermont and York County, Maine have the most declarations.


The counties in New England with the most declared disasters since 1990 are a tie between Lamoille, Vermont and York, Maine. Each of these counties has had a total of 22 declarations. The counties with the fewest declarations are in a three-way tie. These are the counties of Penobscot in Maine, Franklin in Massachusetts, and Providence in Rhode Island. Each of them has declared seven natural disasters.


In America as a whole, Lawrence county, Kentucky and Caddo county, Oklahoma are tied for the most declarations with 30 since 1990. There are 50 counties that have not had a single declaration, located mostly out west.














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