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Top 8 California Cities Most Prepared for Natural Disasters

California may be the backdrop of many disaster movies, but what about real natural disasters? We sought to answer this question: How would the state’s major metros fare when faced with a natural disaster?

We took a look at the most probable disaster types to hit the West Coast: wildfires, floods, and earthquakes, and measured each city’s preparedness. Homes in the top 3 were the most likely to withstand a weather catastrophe, but overall California cities are doing a lot to help mitigate risks. Here are California’s metros ranked from most prepared to least:

1)    Sacramento

Sacramento is the second most susceptible city in the U.S. to floods (after New Orleans), according to the National Weather Service. Since that designation in 2011, Sacramento has worked to improve its flood preparation, earning the best Community Readiness Score on our list from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its flood mitigation efforts. The city also boasts relatively new homes and houses in good condition.

  • Best scores for: Flood and earthquake preparedness
  • Most vulnerable to: Flooding
  • Least prepared for: Wildfires

2)    Riverside-San Bernardino


Photo credit: City of Riverside

Riverside, named for its location beside the Santa Ana River, received overall low scores for preparedness. Houses in Riverside, however, were the youngest and in the best condition on our list. Newer houses (built in the last 10 years) generally are safer and can better withstand damage. They also must conform to stricter building codes, which can help mitigate fire, flood, and earthquake risks.

  • Best scores for: % of houses built within the last 10 years, median house year built, and % of houses in good condition.
  • Most vulnerable to: Earthquakes
  • Least prepared for: Earthquakes

3)    Oakland

Many judge Oakland’s pleasant climate #1 among U.S. cities, and the natural disaster outlook for the city looks relatively sunny as well. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention give Oakland and San Diego their highest score on the Cities Readiness Initiative score. This major transportation hub must prepare for all three major disasters, but fire consistently takes precedence.

  • Best scores for: Catastrophe response
  • Most vulnerable to: Fires and earthquakes in terms of scale.
  • Least prepared for: Earthquakes

4)    San Diego

San Diego’s Local Hazard Mitigation plans – strategies to reduce disaster risk – bumped it up on the list.  The city also scored well with the Cities Readiness Initiative. The 2nd largest city in the state, San Diego is one of the fastest growing in the nation. However, it had the worst ISO fire ranking on the list, so residents should take personal precautions.

  • Best scores for: Local Hazard Mitigation planning and catastrophe response.
  • Most vulnerable to: Fires
  • Least prepared for: Fires

5)     San Jose

As the largest city in Silicon Valley, San Jose is known for its affluence. But are these tech giants safe? The city rests solidly in the middle of our rankings: 26% of its buildings are vulnerable to significant earthquake damage, and the San Andreas and Calaveras Faults border it. Dry summers make conditions perfect for frequent grass fires.

  • Best scores for: none
  • Most vulnerable to: earthquake in terms of disaster scale.
  • Least prepared for: Fires.

6)    San Francisco

San Francisco is the second most densely populated U.S. city after New York. Nevertheless, it has impeccable fire ratings, plans for reducing risk, and good catastrophe response. The only problem: those beautiful houses clinging to the city’s 50 hills are some of the oldest on average of any California metro, and the oldest on this list. If San Francisco were to suffer an earthquake, thousands of aged, non-shake-resistant buildings would put residents at risk. As San Francisco works to upgrade building codes, encourage retrofits, and demolish dangerous buildings, residents should take earthquake precautions.

  • Best scores for: Local Hazard Mitigation plans, catastrophe response, and ISO fire rankings.
  • Most vulnerable to: Earthquakes
  • Least prepared for: Floods and earthquakes.

7)    Anaheim-Santa Ana

The largest cities in California’s famed Orange County receive poor marks for disaster preparedness. On one hand, the area has retrofit or demolished 89% of its unreinforced masonry buildings. On the other, homes are older overall, and the area does not have well-developed disaster plans or catastrophe response. In addition, Santa Ana’s location on its namesake river gives it significant risk of severe floods.

  • Best scores for: earthquake preparedness
  • Most vulnerable to: floods as far as scale, fire in terms of most declared.
  • Least prepared for: Fires and floods.

8)    Los Angeles

Floods, earthquakes, and wildfires threaten Los Angeles more than any other city on our list. Its spread-out nature makes disaster response and mitigation difficult. Old Hollywood may be a glamorous memory, but many of its houses – because of their age – are less resilient and more dangerous. Only 2.88% of L.A.’s homes were built within the last 10 years.

  • Best scores for: no best scores
  • Most vulnerable to: all three major disaster
  • Least prepared for: all three major disasters

Even if your city ranks low on this list, you should know that many safety improvements are in the works. But you also should know that flooding and earthquakes aren’t covered by standard home insurance policies. Earthquake endorsements and separate flood policies are available.

preparedness-table THIS ONE


We ranked these cities based on the following:

  • The % of cities in the metro area with Local Hazard Mitigation Plans, disaster response strategies approved by FEMA and designed to help reduce risk (http://hazardmitigation.calema.ca.gov/docs/SHMP_Final_2013.pdf)
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Cities Readiness Initiative Score (http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/pubs-links/2011/documents/SEPT_UPDATE_REPORT_9-13-2011-Final-appendix2.pdf)
  • US Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey for
    • % of homes in the metro built in the last 10 years
    • Median year built for all of the homes in the metro
    • % of houses in pristine condition: no visible problems with the roof, windows, or foundation.
    • ISO fire ratings (http://www.iso.com/Research-and-Analyses/Studies-and-Whitepapers/ISO-s-PPC-Program-Page-2.html)
    • FEMA’s community rating system for flood preparation. (http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1398878892102-5cbcaa727a635327277d834491210fec/CRS_Communites_May_1_2014.pdf)
    • % of buildings of either brick or stone built before 1933 that pose significant danger during earthquakes that have been either retrofitted or demolished (http://hazardmitigation.calema.ca.gov/docs/SHMP_Final_2013.pdf)
  • Ties were broken using the CDC’s Cities Readiness Initiative Score