Levels of Risk

To some degree, each disaster risk is location-specific. But, for a more realistic assessment of the actual risks you and your loved ones face, we have established four Levels/Zones of Risk:

LEVEL 1The National Zone:

This zone encompasses the whole country. Admittedly, there are only a few disasters of this magnitude (global pandemics fall into this scope).

LEVEL 2Your Regional Zone(s):

Consider this your town, city, or county…roughly anywhere within a 20-mile radius, or 32.2 kilometers, of your home.

(If you have a long commute, identify a second regional zone for your place of employment).

LEVEL 3Your Neighborhood Zone(s):

A 3-mile radius (4.8 kilometers) of your home that might include your workplace and any schools your children attend.

LEVEL 4Your Address Zone(s):

Your actual home

Determining your Regional and Neighborhood Zones will require some effort but it’s easier than you might think. Now let’s develop the levels of risk in greater detail.

LEVEL 1 – The National Zone

The quickest way to get an overview of major natural hazards is to look at the maps provided by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Caution: These maps are large-scale and regional in scope, meaning they do not provide a lot of detail. They are meant to provide general risk-assessment information and guidance only. For example, just because your address is slightly outside an area that is subject to wildfires doesn’t mean you are safe from them. FEMA has also written a book called “Are You Ready? An In-Depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness” (FEMA Publication IS-22). It is available in both English and Spanish and you can get your copy one of two ways:

  1. Call 1-800-480-2520 to order a free single copy. Be patient; it will take several weeks to arrive. Despite the wait, the booklet is likely your best format because it will be more portable (the downloadable file is huge!)

  2. The full document (204 pages) can be downloaded from:

http://www.fema.gov/pdf/areyouready/areyouready_full.pdf  (English)

http://www.fema.gov/spanish/pdf/areyouready/areyouready_full_sp.pdf  (Spanish)

Because these files are large, be sure you have sufficient time and space available (up to 21MG) to fully download them. (They are also available under “Hot Links” and individual threats in “Identify Your Risks” under the tab you are currently viewing.)

We know you are anxious to get started, so we recommend you download the first two parts of “Are You Ready?” The first section helps you determine local risks in the context of the following natural hazards: floods tornadoes, hurricanes, thunderstorms, lightening, extreme storms, and cold:


The second section of natural hazards considers extreme heat, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, debris flows, mud slides, tsunamis or tidal waves, fires and wildfires:


Each hazard section has a map of the country that indicates, in a general way, where that risk is found across the country. (Note: fires can affect everyone but not all fires are natural hazards, therefore, there is no map for fires.) We recommend you print out each map that applies to you, or if you are using the book, mark each map that applies to your potential risks.

We strongly urge you to look at every map to get a rough idea of your exposure to each hazard. You may think you are not susceptible to earthquakes or volcanoes but, with one look at the map, you could be in for a surprise. This is especially true with respect to flooding. If you are not sure your property lies outside a flood plain, go to our “Hot Links,” click on “FIRMette” and follow the directions on the FEMA site. By submitting your street address you will identify your flood designation as well as the area that surrounds you. Print a copy of the map and keep it in your files to confirm your property’s flood status.

Sections related to Technological Hazards and Terrorism can be downloaded at:

http://www.fema.gov/pdf/areyouready/technohazards.pdf  and http://www.fema.gov/pdf/areyouready/terrorism.pdf 

LEVEL 2 – Your Regional Zone(s)

  1. A good first step in determining risks within your region is to ask yourself, “What does everybody know about this area?” Chances are you already have some insight into highways, manufacturing plants, dams, rivers, etc. Ask people around you, especially if they have lived in the area for a while, what they know about regional risks. You may learn about a previously unknown hazard.

  2. Get a decent map (not a tourist map) of your city or town. With a pencil and a piece of string, use the map’s scale to mark off a 20-mile radius. (Holding one end of the string at your address. and the pencil at the appropriate distance, encircle your address.)

  3. Note on your map the locations of major highways and railroads (sources of possible hazardous waste spills and explosions) military installations, major airports and skyscrapers (potential terrorist targets), river beds (possible floods) and any other features that catch your eye as a potential source of problems. 

  4. Wrap-up by using your regional maps and new knowledge to make a list of all the risks that apply to you.

A good resource for printable maps is http://maps.google.com. Download a free program of Google Earth at: http://earth.google.com/. Here you can see your address and neighborhood in much greater detail. Google Earth will help you understand the physical lay of the land: geography and topography.

LEVEL 3 – Your Neighborhood Zone(s)

If your family’s home, school(s) and work locations are outside a 3-mile radius of one another, do the following for all locations that pertain to you. You will need one map per 3-mile radius.

  • Start with the general list of risks you thought of in “Begin to Access the Actual Risks You Face.”

    • To discover specific risks in your neighborhood, walk it. Do this more than once to get a better sense of it.

  • If you have access to a car, drive slowly around this zone for a different perspective. Take your maps along and note the distances you are from major highways, railroad tracks, warehouses (storage of hazardous materials), power plants and airports of any size.

    • Note whether these locations are up or down-wind from your home, school/s or work.
    • Be aware of the direction of the wind over time so you are aware of which way it typically blows. If chemical spills, explosions or biological threats materialize in your zone, you could be affected by winds carrying toxic vapors.

Other things to consider:

  • Is a lake nearby? If so, is it above or below you geographically?
  • What about a river or even a dry stream-bed that might be subject to flooding in severe weather?

  • Where are major water and gas lines located?
  • How close are large power lines or transformers?
  • Are any service stations close enough to be a threat if a gasoline storage tank blows up?
  • How far are you from help?
    • Where is the nearest fire station, police station, hospital?
    • Could a collapsed bridge prevent you from getting out of harm’s way or to your desired evacuation location?

LEVEL 4 – Your Actual Home,

Workplace and/or Any Schools Your Children Attend 

  1. Look around you…what’s next door to you (on all sides):
    • Businesses? Find out what they do at that particular location.
    • Green belt? Determine if it is a watercourse that might flood in severe weather.

    • A major street? Dangerous commercial traffic could frequently travel this route.

  2. Locate the gas lines on and near your property. Do they go directly to the street or under your house?

  3. Locate the power lines on and near your property. Do they go directly to the street or under your house?

  4. Speak with your neighbors to learn more and/or share with them what you have discovered yourself about the risks within your immediate vicinity. Each of you may have something to add to the others findings that will make you both better prepared for any eventuality.

On the “Risks You Face” form, make a concise list of all the risks you found in each Zone/Level. (It would be a kind gesture to share this list with your neighbors.) Now, with your list of risks, and using the resources suggested earlier, add detail about the actions you plan to take during each type of disaster. Each risk should be paired with specific actions you plan to take for that potential disaster. Review this information with your family and put the list in your Personal Preaction™ Plan Notebook.

Don’t get depressed or feel stuck at this point! The whole purpose of making this list is to put you in control. You can’t prepare well for an emergency if you don’t know your vulnerabilities. What have you accomplished? You’ve prepared yourself to get prepared


—Congratulate yourself on a job well done!—

Next>> Month 3: Epidemics to Pandemics