Nearly 3 million people live in Kansas. Many of these people have experienced natural disasters in the state firsthand or had to evacuate because of disasters. However, many Kansans don’t realize just how many types of natural disasters can occur in the state.
This analysis covers what natural disasters occur in Kansas, the worst natural disasters to hit the state since 2000, and what residents can do to prepare.
Is Kansas At Risk of Natural Disasters?
Compared to the rest of the United States, Kansas has a medium risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, Kansas has had 54 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 38 were declared major disasters.
Kansas is also frequently hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, at least 68 separate $1-billion events have affected Kansas.
Worst Natural Disasters in Kansas By Cost (Since 2000)
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: $39.3 billion
- 2022 Drought and Heat Wave: $22.2 billion
- Spring-Summer 2011 Drought and Heat Wave: $16.2 billion
- Spring-Fall 2002 Drought: $15.1 billion
- Summer 2008 Midwest Flooding: $14 billion
Worst Natural Disasters in Kansas By Deaths (Since 2000)
- May 2011 Tornado Outbreak: 177 deaths
- Spring-Fall 2000 Drought and Heat Wave: 140 deaths
- 2022 Drought and Heat Wave: 136 deaths
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: 123 deaths
- Spring-Summer 2011 Drought and Heat Wave: 95 deaths
*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.
Most Common Natural Disasters in Kansas
Many parts of Kansas are high-risk for flooding. Floods can occur when snowmelt or heavy rains cause the Missouri, Souris, or Kansas Rivers to swell. Heavy rains can also cause flash floods in Kansas, especially in the areas around the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers.
Many major cities in Kansas, including Wichita and Topeka, have thousands of properties at risk. Because of climate change, the risk of flooding is increasing in many areas of Kansas.
Kansas Flood Stats
- 133,400 properties at substantial risk in 2020
- 16,000 properties at risk in Wichita in 2020
- 7,628 properties at risk in Topeka in 2020
- 21,900 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000
- 198,000 properties will be at risk by 2050
- 29,900 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
Which Areas of Kansas Are Most At-Risk to Flooding?
Floods can occur in all parts of Kansas, but some area of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of Kansas with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations).
- Haysville: 34%
- Valley Center: 33%
- Hutchinson: 30%
- Liberal: 24%
- Abilene: 23%
- Maize: 20%
- Iola: 18%
- Merriam: 18%
Worst Flood Events in Kansas’s Recent History
The 2007 floods were the worst in Kansas’s recent history. The flooding started in May with heavy rains that caused widespread flooding throughout the northeastern parts of the state.
In June, flooding also occurred in the southwest parts of the state. In July, the flood waters surrounded an oil refinery, causing it to leak over 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Verdigris River. The oil-tainted water spread to residential areas, draping them in a “toxic shroud.”
By the time the flooding was over, there was damage in more than 20 counties, one fatality, damage to over 3 thousand structures, and more than 2 thousand people left homeless.
With an average of 91 tornadoes per year, Kansas ranks number 2 in the United States for number of tornadoes. Most of these tornadoes are F3 in strength or less.
Even these “weak” tornadoes can cause significant damage, though. For example, an F3 tornado that hit Sedgewick County in Kansas in April 2012 caused over 500 million in property damage and 38 injuries.
Since 2000, Kansas has had eleven F4 tornadoes and just one F5 tornado. The F5 tornado occurred in May 2007 and caused 11 fatalities and 63 injuries.
3. Heat Waves and Droughts
Kansas is part of the “Extreme Heat Belt” in the central United States. This region is very at risk of what the National Weather Service calls “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” heat days.
A “dangerous” heat day is defined as one where the heat index is 103F, and an “extremely dangerous” day has a heat index of 124F or above, which is considered unsafe for all people for any amount of time.
By 2053, Extreme Danger days will affect an estimated 107 million people in the Extreme Heat Belt. In Kansas, more than 70,000 are considered vulnerable to extreme heat.
Currently, Kansas sees an average of 35 days per year with dangerous temperatures. However, this number is going to increase over the next few decades. By 2050, Kansas is expected to see 70 dangerous heat days yearly.
The risk of dangerous heat days is expected to increase throughout all parts of Kansas. However, Montgomery County is especially at-risk. In 2022, Montgomery had 39 dangerous heat days. By 2053, this number is expected to increase to 59 days.
Droughts often accompany heat waves. Because Kansas is an agricultural state, droughts can be particularly devastating to the state and have a huge economic toll.
Kansas is one of the most at-risk states for hail storms. From 2018 to 2021, the state experiences 419 hail events per year. This is more than any other state in America other than Texas.
Because Kansas is sparsely populated, these hail storms don’t cause as much damage as in some other states. On average, hail causes approximately $32.7 million in damages annually, ranking Kansas as #10 in the country.
Some hail events can be particularly destructive, though. In 2013, a hail storm hit the Bourbon area of Kansas. Some of the hail balls were as large as tennis balls. They shattered windows on buildings and cars, damaged roofs and siding, and damaged AC units. The event caused approximately $30 million in damages.
Kansas is one of the top states when it comes to lightning risk. The state experiences millions of lightning strikes each year. In 2019 alone, there were over 8.2 million strikes.
The state is very large, though, so the density of lightning strikes isn’t very high. Because of this, Kansas doesn’t frequently see deaths due to lightning. From 1959 to 2016, there were 66 lightning deaths in the state – which makes it rank #30 in terms of deaths.
Kansas doesn’t have many wildfires per year. However, high winds can quickly spread these fires across dry grasses. As a result, wildfires in Kansas tend to be very large and destructive. Kansas ranks as one of the top 10 in the country for wildfire risk.
Because of climate change and increased drought, the risk of wildfires is growing in Kansas. By 2050, 72% of all properties in Kansas will be at risk of wildfire.
Kansas Wildfire Stats
- Acres burned in 2021: 163,982
- Number of fires in 2021: 55
- Wildfire Disaster Declarations since 2000: 12
- Number of properties currently at risk of wildfire: 1,087,985
7. Freezing Rain and Ice Storms
Kansas doesn’t have heavy snowfall or winter snowstorms often. However, Kansas does experience freezing rain and ice storms. Some areas of Kansas can expect approximately 6-12 hours of freezing rain per year.
Freezing rain most frequently occurs during December and January, but fall and spring freeze events also occur. Icy road conditions from the rain make vehicle accidents and slip and fall injuries common. It’s also common for people to lose power during freezing rain events, meaning that thousands can be left without a way to heat their homes during the coldest months.
This is what happened during the December 2007 ice storm. Approximately 260,000 experienced power outages, and thousands of lines and transformers needed to be refused. The damage was so severe that some areas were without power for 2 weeks.