Slate's Gist: Where to Hide from Mother Nature

Hurricanes continue to scour Florida and the Gulf Coast. Out west, there's earthquakes. Tornado Alley in the Midwest earned its name the hard way. Is anywhere safe? You bet — Alex Chadwick speaks to Slate contributor Brendan Koerner about how he determined that the Connecticut town of Storrs is the safest place to live.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

As we've been reminded so starkly this hurricane season, many parts of the US are vulnerable to regular, even inevitable natural disasters. In addition to hurricanes in the Southeast, there are tornadoes in the Midwest, volcanoes in the Northwest, wildfires across the West and, of course, earthquakes here in California. So is anywhere in the country safe? That's the question Brendan Koerner of the online magazine Slate set out to answer. He joins us now. Brendan, you've been trying to figure out what is the safest place to live in the entire country in terms of natural disasters, and you looked at a lot of numbers. What numbers did you examine?

BRENDAN KOERNER (Slate Magazine): Well, the first place I started was looking at the number of disaster declarations by state since 1965, and it seemed the area right around, say Nevada, Utah, Wyoming was the safest in the United States.

CHADWICK: Because they don't have a lot of declarations there. But then, as you point out, when you think about declarations of disaster, they're not so much for disasters as they are for people.

KOERNER: Yes, there definitely is a strong correlation between population of your state and urbanization of your state and the number of disasters federally declared. So it doesn't mean they're really any safer. They have heat and floods and what have you, but at the same time, no one really lives there and there's nothing to be washed out.

CHADWICK: What do you settle on as your finalists?

KOERNER: Well, we came down to 18 finalists. There was basically the bottom 20 in terms of number of declared disasters minus Hawaii and Alaska. Then I looked at the number of fatalities related to natural disasters in 1995.

CHADWICK: And the winner is?

KOERNER: The winner is actually Rhode Island in that sweepstakes. Rhode Island had the lowest, followed by Massachusetts and then Connecticut.

CHADWICK: But then in the end, Rhode Island doesn't win. Why is that?

KOERNER: That's because all of its major cities are actually kind of organized around bays. And in the event of any kind of storm, a hurricane or tropical storm, you might get a storm surge coming up those bays and kind of inundating those big cities. Massachusetts was a very good candidate as well, but they do have several counties on the eastern portion of the state that do get hit by storms--nor'easters, as we call them. And it's obviously exposed directly to the Atlantic Ocean, which is very dangerous. So then I came down to Connecticut which is not directly exposed to the Atlantic. It's exposed to Long Island Sound instead.

CHADWICK: And in Connecticut, you find one particular place.

KOERNER: I wanted to look for a place that was far enough inland to not be at risk from things like flooding, not near any kind of rivers or lakes but also was relatively affluent because socioeconomics matter in terms of surviving and being evacuated and getting hospitalization and medical care, and also close to a big city. And so I arrived finally at Storrs, Connecticut.

CHADWICK: Storrs, Connecticut. The University of Connecticut is there. Where is it in the state exactly?

KOERNER: It's about 50 miles from the Sound, so it's not too terribly far away from civilization. It's near Hartford, but it's also far enough from the water and any kind of other hazards.

CHADWICK: You know, if I were thinking about the dangers of living in Connecticut, I'd think of something like, well, I-95 runs right through there. There'd be tremendous amount of traffic, plus they have nuclear submarine base there.

KOERNER: That's absolutely right. I think maybe the best way to be completely safe is to build yourself a bunker and never come out. But who wants to live that way?

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from writer Brendan Koerner. You'll find his piece on what may be the safest place in America at Slate.com. Brendan, thank you.

KOERNER: Thanks for having me.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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