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Online magazine rates Storrs best place to avoid natural disaster

by Richard Veilleux - September 26, 2005

Storrs has been named “America’s Best Place to Avoid Death Due to Natural Disaster,” by the online magazine, Slate.

And that’s no small consolation for the quiet neighborhoods and decidedly non-urban nightlife of Mansfield, coming as the award does just after one hurricane destroyed New Orleans and another took aim on Galveston and Houston, Texas.

English professor Sam Pickering, among others, is comforted by the declaration but he continues to worry. “That still won’t save us from the people in Washington,” he says.

How Storrs became the most placid place in America, meteorologically speaking, was part research – admittedly “unscientific” – and part serendipidy: Slate contributing writer Brendan I. Koerner and his researchers lopped a few states from the running, including two neighbors, pretty much because they offer good ocean views.

But according to Robert Thorson, a professor of geology, the magazine’s research wasn’t really that bad – the Storrs area is indeed a geologically safe region, he says.

“It makes perfect sense” for Storrs to reach the top spot, Thorson says. “People really have three choices in America: the tectonically unstable West Coast, the marshy, mushy soft and hurricane-prone South, or the stable Eastern seaboard. New England is built on very stable, ancient rock. Storrs is away from the coast, and we’re located on very stable soil. His theory is absolutely valid.”

Storrs, said Koerner, “lies in Tolland County, which was not a part of the 1999 federal disaster declaration for Tropical Storm Floyd.” (Being named a disaster area between 1965 and 2004 counted big points against other towns and cities.) “It’s a safe 50 miles from the (Long Island) Sound, and not close to any (major) rivers. It also has relatively easy access to a major city (Hartford) in the event an evacuation or hospitalization becomes necessary,” Koerner says.

In fact, the Slate researchers even missed what should have earned the Storrs area extra credit – it’s reckoned to be so safe here that, in the event of a nuclear meltdown at the Millstone power plant, most of the residents in the burn area are scheduled to be evacuated to UConn.

Koerner’s research included a review of every presidential federal disaster declaration from 1965 until 2004, a process that immediately eliminated 30 states, “mostly no-brainers, such as the hurricane-prone states of the Gulf Coast and the heartland states that lie in tornado alley,” he said, adding that even North Dakota has regular problems with flooding, as do Virginia, Tennessee, and New York. He eliminated Pennsylvania and Illinois because those states can become “lethally hot,” while Wisconsin and Minnesota go the other way, often becoming notably frigid.

“Hawaii, since islands are inherently at the ocean’s mercy (plus there are a slew of volcanos) and Alaska, where severe winter storms are the norm,” also were cut.

For the remaining 18 states, Koerner looked at year-by-year fatalities resulting from severe weather, dating to 1995, as recorded by the National Weather Service, which lists 27 types of weather events. He and his researchers then calculated the total number of fatalities to arrive at a deaths-per-thousand figure, based on the 2000 census.

That left only three states – Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island – with a fatality rate lower than .01 per thousand. He then broke the states into counties and again reviewed disaster area figures. Although Rhode Island, using numbers only, could have been the winner at that point, Connecticut’s neighbor was eliminated because of its large coastline and the number of major cities that lie close enough to the ocean to be swamped by high winds and/or tides.

Massachusetts also features an extensive coastline and harsh winters in the Berkshires, and was thus eliminated, leaving Connecticut and Storrs – far enough inland to be safe from the waters of the ocean and major rivers, close enough to the hospitals of Hartford to be assisted, gently warmed in the summer and softly cooled in the winter – as the ultimate winner.

“You get a lovely, sanctimonious feeling from living in the woods,” said Regina Barreca, professor of English, “but if you live off campus, you also can’t have food delivered to your door — there’s a price to pay. Some people may live in dangerous places, but they can at least order out.”

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