Nebraska – a land of vast prairies, stunning landscapes, and endless skies. But with nearly 2 million people calling this state home, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
In fact, Nebraskans have faced their fair share of natural disasters, from fierce tornadoes and flash floods to blizzards and thunderstorms.
This analysis covers what natural disasters occur in Nebraska, the worst natural disasters to hit the state since 2000, and what residents can do to prepare.
Is Nebraska At Risk of Natural Disasters?
Compared to the rest of the United States, Nebraska has a low risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, Nebraska has had 44 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 36 were declared major disasters.
Nebraska is also sometimes hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 45 separate $1-billion events have affected the state. Most of these events were severe storms.
Worst Natural Disasters in Nebraska By Cost (Since 2000)
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: $39.3 billion
- 2022 Drought and Heat Wave: $22.2 billion
- Spring-Fall 2002 Drought: $15.1 billion
- Summer 2008 Flooding: $14 billion
- Spring-Fall 2013 Drought and Heat Wave: $13.4 billion
Worst Natural Disasters in Nebraska By Deaths (Since 2000)
- Spring-Fall 2000 Drought and Heat Wave: 140 deaths
- 2022 Drought and Heat Wave: 136 deaths
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: 123 deaths
- December 2022 Winter Storm and Cold Wave: 87 deaths
- Spring-Fall 2013 Drought and Heat Wave: 53 deaths
*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.
Most Common Natural Disasters in Nebraska
1. Heavy Snowfall and Winter Storms
Most of Nebraska generally has mild winters. The state ranks #21 in the country for the most snowfall and snowfall days per year. However, some parts of Nebraska can have harsh winters. Chadron, Nebraska, averages over 50 inches of snowfall per year.
The northern part of Nebraska is particularly prone to blizzards. There is an average of 17 to 25 blizzards per 1,000 square km (386 square miles). The flat landscape in Nebraska makes blizzards worse because there is nothing to block the wind. Visibility can be very low during Nebraska blizzards. If stranded outside, people can easily get lost and succumb to frostbite and hypothermia.
Nebraska Winter Weather Stats
- Average snowfall per year: 28″
- Snowfall days per year: 36 days
- Coldest recorded temperature: -47°F in Oshkosh in 1989
- Record snowfall: 24″ in Arthur in 1939
Winter Driving Fatalities
With 12.7 fatal crashes per 1 million drivers, Nebraska ranks #3 in the country for the most dangerous states for winter driving. The state is sparsely populated, so roads can take a long time to be cleared of snow. There is no mandatory tire chain law in Nebraska, but residents should ensure they have them on their vehicles for winter driving and emergency supplies in case they get stranded.
2. Freeze events
The climate of Nebraska makes it ideal for freezing rain. Some areas of Nebraska can expect approximately 6-9 hours of freezing rain annually.
Freezing rain most frequently occurs during December and January, but fall and spring freeze events also happen.
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.
3. Heat Waves and Droughts
Nebraska 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 Nebraska, more than 45,000 are considered vulnerable to extreme heat.
Currently, Nebraska sees an average of 15 days per year of dangerous heat. However, this number is going to increase over the next few decades. By 2050, Nebraska is expected to see 50 dangerous heat days yearly.
The risk of dangerous heat days is expected to increase throughout all parts of Nebraska. However, Richardson County is especially at-risk. By 2053, Richardson is expected to have 41 dangerous heat days yearly. As many as 8 of these days are expected to occur consecutively.
Droughts often accompany heat waves. As an agricultural state, droughts can be particularly devastating to Nebraska and take a large economic toll.
Only a small portion of Nebraska is covered by forest. However, a considerable amount (92%) of the state is covered by farmland. The state often experiences drought, which means there is lots of dry grass that can easily ignite. Nebraska is a windy state, so fires can rapidly spread. Because of this, Nebraska is at very high risk for wildfires.
The worst year for wildfires in Nebraska’s recent history was 2012. Over 500,000 acres of crops, grasslands, and forests burned that year. The year 2022 was also particularly bad for wildfires. Even though the state uses controlled burning, wildfires are still a significant threat.
Because of climate change, the risk of wildfires in Nebraska is growing. By 2050, an estimated 56% of all properties in the state will be at risk of wildfire.
Nebraska Wildfires Stats
- Acres burned in 2021: 27,294
- Number of fires in 2021: 785
- Percentage of state covered by forests: 3%
- Number of properties currently at risk of wildfire: 562,674
With an average of 55 tornadoes per year, Nebraska ranks number five in the United States for the number of tornadoes. Because most of these tornadoes are not very strong or destructive, Nebraska ranks #12 for tornado risk in the country.
Since 2000, Nebraska has never had an F5 tornado. However, it has had several F4 tornadoes and many F3 tornadoes. During this period, tornadoes killed at least 5 people, injured 135, and caused millions in property and crop damages.
Nebraska has over 79,000 miles of rivers and streams. In spring, these rivers can flood due to heavy rains and snowmelt. Ice jams can also cause the rivers to flood. Water from the flooded rivers can quickly spread, resulting in vast floodplains. Severe storms in the summertime can also cause flash flooding in Nebraska.
Since 2000, Nebraska has been affected by four billion-dollar flood events and has had to declare a disaster five times due to floods.
Nebraska Flood Stats
- 102,500 properties at substantial risk in 2020
- 149,300 properties at risk by 2050
- 102,000 properties at substantial risk by 2050
- 23,600 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
- 25,300 h FEMA flood damage claims since 2000
Which Areas of Nebraska Are Most At-Risk of Flooding?
Floods can occur in all parts of Nebraska, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of Nebraska with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations).
- Columbus: 45%
- Cozad: 45%
- Fremont: 40%
- South Sioux City: 30%
- Crete: 28%
- Norfolk: 23%
In addition to these areas, there are many major cities and towns in Nebraska where thousands of properties are at risk. This includes over 12,600 properties in Omaha and nearly 8,000 properties in Lincoln.
Unlike most parts of the United States, the risk of flooding isn’t expected to increase over the next few decades.
Nebraska is one of the most at-risk states for hail storms. The state sees an average of over 300 hail storms per year. Many of these hail storms are very destructive: hail causes an estimated $50.8 million in damages in Nebraska annually.
One of the worst hail storms in Nebraska history was the 2012 event which hit Lincoln on April 14th. It produced huge hail balls, which caused approximately $30 million in property damage.
Nebraska experiences a huge number of lightning strikes each year. In 2019 alone, there were over 6.1 million lightning strikes. When you factor in the size of the state, Nebraska ranks in the top 10 for lightning density. Luckily, deaths from lightning are not common in Nebraska. In the period from 1959 to 2016, there were 45 lightning deaths.