16 Natural Disasters & Hazards: Survival 101

Know the 16 natural disasters and hazards so you can be prepared for whatever comes your way. Some of these disasters can occur anywhere and some are area specific. For instance, you don’t often see a hurricane in the middle of Iowa but you do see tornadoes and flooding. I know that the biggest threat I face here in Florida is Hurricanes and flooding.

Know your local disasters so you can be prepared when they strike.

16 Natural Disasters & Hazards

  1. Flood
  2. Flash Flood
  3. Thunderstorms and Lightening
  4. Hurricane
  5. Tornado
  6. Heat Wave/High Temperatures
  7. Winter Storm/ Cold Temperatures
  8. Earthquake
  9. Volcano
  10. Landslide and Debris Flow
  11. Tsunamis
  12. Fire
  13. Drought
  14. Technological Hazards
  15. Terrorism
  16. Infectious Disease

Federal Emergency Management Agency: FEMA Survival Planning

What is a Natural Disaster?

A natural disaster is a real event such as a flood, hurricane, thunderstorm, tornado, high temperatures, winter storm, earthquake, volcano, landslide, tsunamis, fire, or wildfire that result in extreme property damage, loss of life, and/or bodily injury. 

The Difference Between a Natural Hazard and a Natural Disaster

A Natural Hazard is something that can happen in your area. A natural disaster is when it happens. Know your hazards so you can be ready for emergencies.

  • A Natural Hazard is a latent or active natural force that may cause a disaster event but has not yet occurred.  Hurricanes are very likely to happen and strike land on the Gulf Coast of the United States, so; they are a “natural hazard” in this geographic location.
  • A Natural Disaster occurs when a natural hazard causes an event. Hurricane Katrina caused severe damage to property and loss of life, so it is a natural disaster.

#1 Flood 

A Flood is an overflow of water onto naturally dry land. Flooding is the most common and the most destructive of all the natural hazards.

What Causes Floods?

  • Heavy Rain
  • River Overflow
  • Dam Failure
  • Hurricanes and Tsunamis
  • Poorly Engineered Water Canals
  • Overengineered River Beds
  • Deforestation
  • Wild Fires
  • Snowmelt
  • Floods cause extensive property damage and loss of life.
  • The degree of damage caused by flooding is dependent on the volume of water and how long it takes the water to recede.
  • Floods often accompany other natural disasters such as storm surges, hurricanes, or tsunamis.  

#2 Flash Flood 

One of the scariest things about flash flooding is you can be standing in perfect sunshine with no rain and have a massive river of water come out of nowhere.

Flash floods are rapid flooding that happens in lower-lying areas like washes and rivers.

  • Flash flooding can occur due to heavy rain, hurricanes, tropical storms, or snowmelt.
  • Broken dams or levees will also cause flash flooding.

 According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “attempting to drive through floodwaters is a leading cause of flood-related deaths.”

Flash Flood In Utah

#3 Thunderstorms and Lightning 

Lightning is a rapid discharge of atmospheric electricity. Thunderstorms are lightning storms. If the thunderstorm is far enough from your location, you can hear the lightning, but you can’t see it.

  • Thunderstorms and lightning can cause massive blackouts and fires.
  • Thunderstorms often accompany other natural hazards like flash flooding, tornadoes, forest fires, or power outages.

#4 Hurricane

Hurricanes are tropical storms that begin as a rotating low-pressure weather system, with winds less than 39 mph, called a tropical depression. When wind speed reaches 39 mph or higher, the depression becomes a tropical storm.   At wind speeds of 74 mph or more, you have a Hurricane. 

How Do You Determine the Intensity of a Hurricane?

Hurricane intensity is its wind speed. See the following chart for details.

Check out the Ready Squirrel article, Hurricane Food: Must Have Non Perishables

What Are The Categories of Hurricanes?

Category 1
74-95 mph
64-82 kt
119-153 km/h
Very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to the roof, shingles, vinyl siding, and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap, and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days.
Category 2
96-110 mph
83-95 kt
154-177 km/h
Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks.
111-129 mph
96-112 kt
178-208 km/h
Devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking, and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes.
130-156 mph
113-136 kt
209-251 km/h
Catastrophic damage will occur: Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the site will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.
Category 5
157 mph or higher
137 kt or higher
252 km/h or higher
Catastrophic damage will occur: A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the site will be uninhabitable for weeks or months
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, Compliments of NOAA

Is It Just Hurricane Winds That Cause Damage?

When hurricanes hit land, they create a storm surge, pushing ocean water ashore. The heavy rains that accompany the rise of ocean water cause catastrophic flooding.


#5 Tornado

A tornado is an extreme column of rotating air that makes contact with the ground. The Fujita scale is used to determine the wind speed that a tornado attains. The higher the wind speed, the larger the tornado, the more damage caused. 

How Do You Determine the Intensity of a Tornado?

The Enhanced Fujita Scale is used in the United States to determine how intense a tornado is by examining windspeed and the damage caused to man-made structures.

Enhanced Fujita Scale For Tornado Intensity

EF-OF65 to 85 mphLight Damage
EF-186 to 100 mphModerate Damage
EF-2111 mph to 135 mph Considerable Damage
EF-3136 mph to 165 mphSevere Damage
EF-4166 mph to 200 mphDevastating Damage
EF-5200 mph +Incredible Damage
Information Compliments of NOAA’s weather service

How Much Damage Can an F-5 Tornado Do?

EF-5 tornadoes can do a lot of damage, which includes:

  • Tear buildings off of foundations
  • Peal black-top off of a roadway
  • Hurl vehicles up to 100 meters (298 feet)
  • Cause structural damage to high-rise buildings
  • Create missile hazards by driving objects through opposing objects

Where Do Tornadoes Occur?

Tornadoes are most prevalent in North America, specifically an area called Tornado Alley. Tornadoes also occur in Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America.  

What is Tornado Alley?

Tornado Alley is an area of the United States that has a high potential for tornadoes, from late spring to early fall. The States Included in Tornado Alley:

  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Kansas
  • Louisianna
  • Iowa
  • Nebraska
  • Eastern Colorado
  • South Dakota
Crazy Man Filming a Tornado in Madill, Oklahoma

#6 Heatwave/High Temperatures

A heatwave (heatwave) is a period of abnormally high temperature, often accompanied by humidity. Weather services declare heat waves by comparing current temperatures to the normal seasonal temperature in that location.

Natural Disasters Caused by Heatwaves

  • Crop Failure
  • Deaths from overheating
  • Widespread power outages

Heat doesn’t cause power outages, but abnormally high temperatures make people turn on fans and crank up the A.C. This increases the demand for power that an aging electrical grid can’t handle.

Power outages can be especially hazardous in areas affected by the heat island effect.

What is the Heat Island Effect?

The Heat Island Effect happens in an area with a population of one million or more. The site has higher than average temperatures than the surrounding area because there is a lack of natural materials and a high amount of manmade products like steel and concrete.   

What Causes Heat Island Effect?

  • Big cities have fewer natural materials like grass and trees that are permeable to moisture and stay somewhat moist.
  • When natural materials are replaced with asphalt, concrete, and other infrastructure, the environment becomes impervious to humidity and dries out.

This dryness increases average temperatures up to 5.4 degrees in relation to surrounding areas.   

#7 Winter Storms and Cold Temperatures

Freezing weather, snow, and ice can incapacitate entire regions by shutting down freeways, knocking out electrical power, causing property damage, and cutting off water, and heat.

Automobile accidents increase, and people stranded in snow are in danger of freezing.

#8 Earthquake

An earthquake is when the ground moves because there is a sudden shift between the earth’s tectonic plates along plate boundaries or fault lines. Populated areas are the hardest hit because of falling debris and damage to infrastructure.

How Do Earthquakes Cause Damage?

  • Ground movement
  • Soil Liquefication caused by a shaking of sand, soil, and groundwater can cause buildings to sink or topple
  • Ground displacement where the ground moves down or apart can collapse high-rise buildings, bust gas-lines, water mains, and sewage lines.
  • Flooding by breaking damns and levees
  • Fire from damaged gas and electrical lines

#9 Volcano

Exploding Volcano

A volcano is a rupture in the earth’s crust that may or may not be active. If the walls of a dynamic magma chamber rupture, the volcano may release hot lava, ash, and toxic gases. The release can be mild or explosive.

  • Volcanic eruptions can take human life when they explode or through suffocation from loss of oxygen
  • Suffocation is the #1 cause of death caused by erupting volcanoes
  • Volcanic eruptions trigger other natural disasters such as flooding, power outages, mudslides, drinking water contamination, and fires

#10 Landslides and Debris Flows

A landslide is a massive movement of rock, soil, or debris down a steep slope. Debris flows are fast-moving landslides of mud, sand, dirt, or stone. They are particularly dangerous because they occur without warning, destroying everything in their path.

You can’t outrun a debris flow.

Interesting Facts About Landslides and Debris Flows:

  • Debris flows can occur miles away, getting larger as they accumulate trees, boulders, cars, and other materials.   
  • The danger of landslides substantially increases when there is a forest-fire followed by extreme rain.
  • Giant landslides in the ocean can cause tsunamis. Undersea earthquakes or volcanoes trigger these landslides.  
Amateur Footage Of Landslides and Debris Flows

#11 Tsunamis

A tsunami (tidal wave) is a series of waves caused by earthquakes, underwater landslides, or undersea volcanic eruptions. Tsunamis can be massively destructive to life and property.

  • By the time Tsunamis reach the shoreline they can be traveling up to 100 mph
  • Out in the ocean tsunamis get top speeds of 500 mph (that’s not a typo)
  • When the leading edge of a Tsunami wave reaches the shore, it slows down due to the shallower water. The trailing part of the wave is moving faster than the leading edge causing the water to stack, increasing wave height.

In 2011, the 9.0 Magnitude, Sendai Earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan. Tragically, the earthquake triggered 33 ft tsunami waves that struck the coast taking 28,500 lives, causing massive property damage and triggering the Fukushima nuclear incident.

Fukushima Tsunami

#12 Fire

Two Fire Fighters, fighting fire

Wildfires/ Rural Fires/Wildland Fires

A wildfire is an unplanned fire that burns forests, grasslands or prairies. Often started by humans, or lightning, wildfires can cause a chain reaction of destruction such as flooding, power outages, and transportation disruptions.  

In August of 2018, The Paradise Fire occurred, it was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, according to USA Today. The fire caused by a faulty electric transformer burned 153,336 acres of wildland and destroyed 18,804 buildings. Sadly, 84 people perished in this fire. 

Paradise Fire, California, August 2018,

#13 Drought

Drought is long periods of time without rain. Many areas of the world lack emergency water resources from underground aquifers, streams, rivers, or lakes. Severe drought regularly causes famine throughout the world.

#14 Technological Hazards

Locomotive, Train
  1. Hazardous Material Incidents
  2. Trains with Hazardous Cargo
  3. Dam Failure
  4. Munition Factories
  5. Refineries
  6. Chemical Plants 
  7. Petroleum Plants, and Fields
  8. Natural Gas Farms
  9. Fuel Storage Facilities
  10. Power Plants
  11. Nuclear Power Plant Emergencies

It’s not just the natural hazards that can cause a catastrophe. Be aware of Technological dangers in your area when planning for emergency preparedness.

What is a Technological Hazard?

Industry and technology can set the stage for major Technological Disasters via air pollution, water contamination, radiation poisoning, explosions, toxic waste, dangerous gas-clouds, fire, and transportation accidents.

Natural disasters or other hazards can trigger technological catastrophes. As an example, municipal water is contaminated with industrial chemicals during hurricanes.

#15 Terrorism

Terrorism is the use of violence to influence political, religious, or ideological beliefs by creating an environment of fear and uncertainty. 

Terrorist Acts That Lead to Disaster

  • Explosions: Using explosive materials to commit acts of terrorism
  • Bioterrorism Intentionally releasing biological agents to kill or harm humans. Agents can be bacteria, toxins, or viruses. These agents are simple to make, inexpensive, and spread quickly. 
  • Chemical Threats The use of chemical toxins to harm humans, plants, or animals. Agents can come in the form of a gas, liquid, or solid. 
  • Nuclear Blasts: Explosion of an atomic bomb or an Improvised Nuclear Device. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “a nuclear explosion, initially, produces an intense pulse of heat, light, air pressure and radiation, followed by the “fallout” of radioactive materials.”

#16 Infectious Disease

Infectious Disease Map
  • Natural disasters may lead to an infectious disease outbreak that could turn into an epidemic or pandemic.
  • After natural disasters occur, the most considerable outbreak risk comes from populations being forced to flee and move to another location. This puts a strain on clean water resources, sanitation, and medical facilities. (CDC)

What is an Epidemic? 

“Epidemic refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of an infectious disease in a specific area.” (CDC)

What is a Pandemic?

A pandemic is an epidemic that crosses borders, or a worldwide spread of a new, infectious disease.   

Pandemics are often associated with a new strain of influenza or mutations of avian flu, or CoronaVirus (SARS).

Examples of Pandemics:

  • COVID-19 caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2
  • HIV/Aids (2005 to 2012) Death Toll: 36 million
  • Flu Pandemic (1968) Death Toll: 1 million
  • Asian Flu (1956 to 1958) Death Toll: 2 million
  • Spanish Flu (1918) Death Toll: 20 to 50 million
  • Bubonic Plague (1346 to 1353) Death Toll: 50 million

What Kind of Diseases Reach Epidemic or Pandemic Proportions?

Any infectious disease that can be passed from one human to another can become a pandemic. If an infectious disease can spread via casual contact, it is more likely to spread quickly. 

“ There was no vaccine for The Spanish Flu that killed 50 Million in 1918. There were no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections…, and control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings. (CDC)


Useful Links

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