Natural Disasters in Pennsylvania: What Is the Risk?

Pennsylvania is home to 13 million people, many of whom have faced the devastating impacts of natural disasters or been forced to evacuate due to them.

Despite this, a concerning number of Pennsylvania residents remain unaware of the extensive range of natural disasters that could strike the state.

In this analysis, we delve into the various natural disasters that threaten Pennsylvania, recount the worst catastrophes to hit the state since 2000, and offer advice on what residents can do to prepare.

Is Pennsylvania At Risk of Natural Disasters?

Compared to the rest of the United States, Pennsylvania has a medium risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, Pennsylvania has had 25 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 19 were declared major disasters. 

Pennsylvania is also frequently hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 65 separate $1-billion events have affected Pennsylvania. Most of these were severe storms.

Worst Natural Disasters in Pennsylvania By Cost (Since 2000)

  1. Hurricane Sandy 2012: $83.9 billion
  2. Hurricane Ida 2021: $80.2 billion
  3. Hurricane Ike 2008: $40.8 billion
  4. 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: $39.3 billion
  5. Hurricane Ivan 2004: $32.2 billion

Worst Natural Disasters in Pennsylvania By Deaths (Since 2000)

  1. May 2011 Tornado Outbreak: 177 deaths
  2. Hurricane Sandy 2012: 159 deaths
  3. 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: 123 deaths
  4. Hurricane Ike 2008: 112 deaths
  5. Hurricane Ida 2021: 96 deaths

*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.

Most Common Natural Disasters in Pennsylvania

1. Flooding

Pennsylvania is at risk for flooding. The state has over 83,000 miles of rivers and streams. During spring, heavy rains, snowmelt, and ice jams can cause these waterways to swell and overflow.

Flooding also occurs from hurricanes and tropical storms. Heavy rains sometimes cause flash flooding, especially in the Northeast part of the state. 

Pennsylvania Flood Stats

  • 564,600 properties at substantial risk in 2020
  • 743,600 properties at risk by 2050
  • 587,400 properties at substantial risk by 2050
  • 202,700 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
  • 257,100 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000

Which Areas of Pennsylvania Are Most At-Risk of Flooding?

Floods can occur in all parts of Pennsylvania, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of Pennsylvania with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations). 

  • Kingston: 98%
  • Swoyersville: 78%
  • Exeter: 70%
  • Danville: 62%
  • McKees Rocks: 60%
  • West Pittston: 60%
  • Honesdale: 55%

In addition to these areas, there are many major cities and towns in Pennsylvania where thousands of properties are at risk. This includes over 50,000 properties in Philadelphia, nearly 22,000 in Pittsburgh, and over 7,000 in Harrisburg. 

Because of climate change, the risk of flooding is increasing in many parts of Pennsylvania. By 2050, an estimated 10.3% of all properties in the state will be at substantial risk of flooding.

2. Heavy Snowfall and Winter Storms

Pennsylvania ranks #19 in the country for the most snowfall and snowfall days per year. However, this ranking is a bit deceiving since some parts of Pennsylvania receive much more snowfall than others. 

The northwestern part of the state near Lake Erie gets the most snowfall, with Corry receiving an average of 112 inches annually. By contrast, Philadelphia only receives an average of 19 inches, and Pittsburg receives 18 inches of snow annually.

Snowstorms and blizzards aren’t very common in Pennsylvania, but they do happen. Since 2000, the state has been affected by eight billion-dollar winter storms.

One of the worst snowstorms to hit Pennsylvania in recent history was the February 2010 “Snowmageddon.”  Philadelphia received more than 43 inches of snow, and Pittsburg received 21 inches. The heavy snowfall paralyzed much of the state and caused huge economic losses.

Pennsylvania Winter Weather Stats

  • Average snowfall per year: 36”
  • Snowfall days per year: 40 days
  • Coldest recorded temperature: -42°F in Smethport in 1904
  • Record snowfall: 38” in Morgantown in 1958

Winter Driving Fatalities

Based on one analysis, Pennsylvania is the 6th most dangerous state for winter driving. From 2018 to 2020, there were 84 fatal accidents due to winter road conditions – or 0.29 fatalities per billion vehicle miles traveled.

Pennsylvania residents should make sure they are prepared for bad road conditions in winter and have a winter emergency kit in their vehicles.

3. Freezing Rain

The climate of the Northeast makes it ideal for freezing rain. Most parts of Pennsylvania can expect at least 9-12 hours of freezing rain annually. Some regions can see over 15 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.

4. Heat Waves and Droughts

As with the rest of the country, the risk of heat days is increasing in Pennsylvania. Currently, Pennsylvania averages 5 “dangerous” heat days per year. The National Weather Service defines these as days where the heat index is 103F or above. By 2050, the number of dangerous heat days in Pennsylvania is expected to increase to 15 days per year.

In addition to more dangerous heat days, Pennsylvania will also see more “Local Hot Days.”  Local Hot Days are defined as “Days at or above the 98th percentile temperature, or the temperature than an area could expect to see on the hottest 7 days of the year.”  Essentially, Local Hot Days factor in what temperatures a local population is used to experiencing.  

An increase in Local Hot Days is associated with health problems like strokes, and heat-related deaths are more likely to occur. Energy demands also increase from air conditioning use.

All parts of Pennsylvania are expected to have an increase in Local Hot Days, but Fayette County is particularly at-risk. By 2053, Fayette is expected to have 18 consecutive days with temperatures at or above 95.1℉.

Droughts often accompany heat waves. As an agricultural state, droughts can have a huge economic toll on Pennsylvania. They also increase the risk of wildfires.

5. Tornados

Pennsylvania has an average of 18 tornadoes yearly, but most are very weak. The state has not had an F5 or F4 tornado in recent history and only four F3 tornadoes. However, even the F2 tornadoes in Pennsylvania can be destructive though. Since 2000, there have been 4 tornado deaths in Pennsylvania and 85 injuries – all caused by F1 or F2 tornadoes.

6. Wildfires

Pennsylvania is not at high risk for wildfires compared to the rest of the country. When wildfires do occur in Pennsylvania, they are usually contained quickly.

However, because of climate change, the risk of wildfires in Pennsylvania is growing. By 2050, an estimated 21% of all properties in the state will be at risk of wildfire.

Pennsylvania Wildfire Stats:

  • Acres burned in 2021: 2,892
  • Number of fires in 2021: 1,350
  • Percentage of state covered by forests: 57%
  • Number of properties currently at risk of wildfire: 843,242

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