The federal government has declared more disasters and emergencies in California than any other state since May of 1953 when Washington officials made their first such declaration following a tornado in Georgia, according to an analysis of data recently released to the public by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The vast majority in the Golden State were the result of blazes, which may not come as much of a shock since California frequently endures wildfires.

But the figures for other historical declarations could surprise you.

Despite Florida being battered by hurricanes seemingly every year, Texas easily outpaced the Sunshine State by dozens of disaster and emergency declarations over the last several decades. And the land-locked Midwestern state of Oklahoma followed closely behind Florida because of numerous severe storms, floods and other incidents. Most declarations made in Florida weren’t listed as due to hurricanes, in fact, or even “severe storms,” but rather fires.

Using a unique new program called Tableau Public, we sought to determine which states most frequently received disaster and emergency declarations and why. Our findings are available below in two fully interactive charts, which allow you to isolate the numbers by year, incident type (e.g. ice storm) and state simply by using the menus available on the right.

Receiving official recognition from federal authorities that an earthquake, flood, blizzard or other event has caused significant destruction is essential for triggering financial aid when state and local governments don’t otherwise have the necessary resources available, as clearly was the case following Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA’s own limited analysis of similar figures is available online, but they exclude “emergency declarations” and “fire management assistance declarations” from what the agency defines as a “disaster declaration.” So FEMA calls Texas the leader in official federally declared disasters and considers the total declarations nationwide since the 1950s to be about 1,900.

But all declarations made by the federal government cost money and alter the lives of citizens, even if only limited funds are awarded for disaster recovery or to prevent a major catastrophe from occurring. By including them all we came to the larger total of more than 2,600.

While FEMA’s full release of disaster declarations enables an interesting look at trends, the agency’s descriptions of some disasters are inconsistent. There’s only one event listed in the data as terrorist-caused, and that’s the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. The assault that same day on the World Trade Center towers in New York City is categorized under “fires and explosions.” The Oklahoma City bombing is entered as due to “human cause,” rather than terrorism specifically.

The trade center bombing in 1993 is also attributed to human cause, along with the 1980 Mariele boatlift crisis in which thousands of Cubans converged on Florida during a period of turbulence under Fidel Castro.

Local emergency managers are considered to be the “first responders” who must determine if a community and its neighbors are overwhelmed and need assistance from the state. The governor can then turn to Washington for further aid after conducting a damage assessment. “The first 72 are on you” is an old saying in emergency preparedness, meaning citizens should be ready to care for themselves and their families for three days following a major disaster since at least that much time could pass before help arrives.

Later this week, Elevated Risk will offer you another look at the data. Why has the number of federally declared disasters grown so much over time? There may be a political explanation.

Quick note: We’ve been told by the folks at Tableau Public that some Safari users are having trouble viewing data right now, but the issue should be resolved by late April. In the meantime, try using Firefox, Google Chrome or another browser instead. You might also try adjusting your browser to accept third-party cookies.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.