Over 8.6 million people live in Virginia. Many of these people have experienced natural disasters in the state firsthand or had to evacuate because of disasters. However, many Virginians don’t realize just how many types of natural disasters can occur in the state.
This analysis covers what natural disasters occur in Virginia, the worst natural disasters to hit the state since 2000, and what residents can do to prepare.
Is Virginia At Risk of Natural Disasters?
Compared to the rest of the United States, Virginia has a medium risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, Virginia has had 41 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 29 were declared major disasters.
Virginia is also frequently hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 69 separate $1-billion events have affected Virginia. Most of these were severe storms.
Worst Natural Disasters in Virginia By Cost (Since 2000)
- Hurricane Ian 2022: $112.9 billion
- Hurricane Sandy 2012: $83.9 billion
- Hurricane Ida 2021: $80.2 billion
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: $39.3 billion
- Hurricane Ivan 2004: $32.2 billion
Worst Natural Disasters in Virginia By Deaths (Since 2000)
- April 2011 Tornado Outbreak: 321 deaths
- February 2021 Winter Storm and Cold Wave: 262 deaths
- May 2011 Tornado Outbreak: 177 deaths
- Hurricane Sandy 2012: 159 deaths
- Hurricane Ian 2022: 152 deaths
*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.
Most Common Natural Disasters in Virginia
Virginia is a coastal state with over 49,000 miles of streams and rivers. Because of increasing sea levels and the frequency of tropical storms, coastal areas of Virginia are at high risk for flooding. The state also receives more rainfall than in the past, so even inland parts are at risk of flooding.
Because of climate change, the risk of flooding will only worsen in Virginia. The state ranks #1 in the country for greatest increase of properties at risk by 2050.
Virginia Flood Stats
- 344,400 properties at substantial risk in 2020
- 570,800 properties at risk by 2050
- 389,700 properties at significant risk by 2050
- 133,700 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
- 95,900 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000
Which Areas of Virginia Are Most At-Risk to Flooding?
Floods can occur in all parts of Virginia, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of Virginia with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations).
- Chincoteague: 80%
- Poquoson: 73%
- Glasgow: 50%
- Big Stone Gap: 43%
- Bridgewater: 43%
- Buena Vista: 39%
- Tazewell: 36%
In addition to these areas, there are many major cities in Virginia where thousands of properties are at risk. This includes approximately 29,000 properties in Virginia Beach, 18,000 in Norfolk, 17,000 in Hampton, and 16,500 in Chesapeake.
Because of climate change, the risk of flooding is only increasing in many parts of Virginia. For example, 27% of all properties in Norfolk are at risk of flooding, but this number will increase to 80% of all properties by 2050.
Worst Floods in Virginia’s Recent History
Virginia has experienced numerous major flood events since 2000. One of the worst of these was Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Storm surges and heavy rainfall from the hurricane caused severe flooding in many parts of the state and damaged many homes along riverways. The hurricane caused nearly $30 million in damages and 37 deaths in Virginia alone.
In addition to these significant events, Virginia often has smaller flood events. It doesn’t take much flood water to cause massive damage, so residents must be prepared.
Virginia is one of the most at-risk states in the country for tropical storms and hurricanes. From 1851 to 2020, the state was hit by 13 hurricanes. This ranks Virginia as #10 in the country for hurricane frequency. Of these, eleven were Category 1, and two were Category 2.
Approximately 59% of Virginia’s population lives in coastal areas. These areas are particularly susceptible to hurricane damage. Because of this, in 2022, North Carolina ranked #9 in expected hurricane damage losses per capita.
Virginia has an average of 19 tornadoes per year. Most of these tornadoes are weak and do not cause much damage. Since 2000, there has only been one F4 tornado in Virginia and 7 days with F3 tornadoes. During this period, there were 11 tornado fatalities in Virginia and 431 injuries.
While the risk of tornadoes may not be very high in Virginia, it doesn’t mean that residents shouldn’t be prepared. It’s essential that they have an underground or above-ground tornado shelter and use an NOAA radio to get tornado alerts.
4. Freezing Rains
While they don’t occur as frequently as in Northeastern states, freezing rains do occur in Virginia. Most areas of the state can expect at least 9 hours of freezing rain each year. Central Virginia is the most at-risk and can expect 12-15 hours of freezing rain yearly.
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.
5. Heat Waves and Droughts
As with the rest of the country, the risk of heat days is increasing in Virginia. Virginia has an average of 10 “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 Virginia is expected to increase to 40 per year. The number of heat wave days is expected to increase from 10 to nearly 60 per year.
In addition to seeing more dangerous heat days, Virginia 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 Virginia are expected to have an increase in Local Hot Days, but Bristol County is particularly at-risk. By 2053, Bristol is expected to have 20 consecutive days with temperatures at or above 97.5℉
Droughts often accompany heat waves. These droughts can have a substantial economic impact on Virginia’s agricultural economy and also increase the risk of wildfires in the state.