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Moving? Be sure to pick up a map of natural hazards in your new 'hood

Thinking about relocating? Forget the proximity of good schools, trendy shopping and green space. You might want to take a look at a new “hazard map” of the U.S., which spells out by geographic region the likelihood of dying from floods, earthquakes or other natural dangers.

Geographers from the University of South Carolina in Columbia determined how common deaths from natural hazards were in different regions of the country, using information from the Spatial Hazard Event and Loss Database, which culls deaths and economic losses from weather in the U.S. (Here's the abstract of what some are calling the "death map" study.) They examined 11 categories of hazards between 1970 and 2004: winter weather (such as frigid temps and blizzards), mass movements (such as landslides and avalanches), coastal and geophysical events (such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis), flooding, heat and drought, hurricanes and tropical storms, lightning, severe weather (combinations of hail, wind and rain), tornadoes and wildfires.

Deaths clustered most in the South, where tornadoes, lightning and severe weather wrought havoc, according to the study published in today's International Journal of Health Geographics. In mountainous western states, winter weather, severe weather and flooding were responsible for the bulk of deaths, and in the south-central U.S., heat and drought, tornados and flooding were most lethal.

Regional rates of death by natural hazard weren't published in the paper. Nationally, heat and drought were the most deadly natural phenomenona, accounting for nearly 20 percent of deaths. Severe summer weather caused nearly 19 percent of deaths, and winter weather 18 percent of deaths. Flooding caused 14 percent, tornado nearly 12 percent, coastal hazards about 2 percent, geophysical events 1.5 percent, hurricanes and tropical storms 1.5 percent, mass movements 0.9 percent and wildfires 0.4 percent.

It's unknown whether poverty or other social factors contribute to the regional differences in deaths from natural hazards, co-author Susan Cutter tells us. The hazards themselves may differ by geography, but so do their effects.

"Every place has some degree of risk from natural hazards," says Cutter.

"Flooding is ubiquitous," she says. "Heat you don’t find as prevalent a hazard in the South because it's the normal mode; it's more of a problem in the North where people aren’t used to extremely high temperatures in summer. Frigid weather is the norm in Minnesota and the Dakotas and people have adapted to it and prepared for it. If there were the same weather in the South, you'd have a lot of fatalities associated with it."

Natural hazards aren’t among the government's top 10 causes of death. Heart disease, cancer and stroke are the big three.

Map from Spatial patterns of natural hazards mortality in the United States, International Journal of Health Geographics

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