Wisconsin has a population of almost 6 million people, many of whom have encountered natural disasters in the state or been forced to evacuate due to them.
However, many Wisconsin residents are unaware of the various types of natural disasters that can occur in the state.
This article examines the natural disasters common in Wisconsin, the most severe disasters in the state since 2000, and guides residents on preparing for such events.
Is Wisconsin At Risk of Natural Disasters?
Compared to the rest of the United States, Wisconsin has a low risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, Wisconsin has had 22 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 19 were declared major disasters.
Wisconsin is also frequently hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 42 separate $1-billion events have affected Wisconsin. Most of these events were severe storms.
Worst Natural Disasters in Wisconsin By Cost (Since 2000)
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: $39.3 billion
- Summer 2008 Midwest Flooding: $14 billion
- Spring-Fall 2013 Western Plains Drought and Heat Wave: $13.4 billion
- August 2020 Severe Weather-Derecho: $12.7 billion
- March 2019 Flooding: $12.7 billion
Worst Natural Disasters in Wisconsin By Deaths (Since 2000)
- May 2011 Tornado Outbreak: 177 deaths
- 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: 123 deaths
- December 2022 Winter Storm and Cold Wave: 87 deaths
- Spring-Fall 2013 Western Plains Drought and Heat Wave: 53 deaths
- Spring-Fall 2003 Western/Central Drought and Heat Wave: 35 deaths
*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.
Most Common Natural Disasters in Wisconsin
1. Heavy Snowfall and Winter Storms
Wisconsin ranks #10 in the country for the most snowfall and #6 for the most snowfall days yearly. Much of the state is subject to the Lake Effect, which creates severe winter weather. Areas of Wisconsin bordering the lake average approximately 100 inches of snowfall per season.
While Wisconsin doesn’t have blizzards often, snowstorms are common. The northeast and north-central parts of the state have an average of 3 to 5 winter storms per season. Ice storms occur on average once every 4 to 5 years.
Considering the amount of snowfall Wisconsin gets, it is unsurprising that vehicle accidents are common in winter. According to one analysis, Wisconsin is the 7th most dangerous state for winter driving, with 0.38 fatal accidents per billion vehicular miles traveled.
Wisconsin Winter Weather Stats
- Average snowfall per year: 46”
- Snowfall days per year: 77 days
- Coldest recorded temperature: -55°F in Couderay in 1996
- Record snowfall: 25” in Trempealeau Dam 6 in 1952
2. Freezing Rain
The climate of the Midwest makes it ideal for freezing rain. Wisconsin doesn’t have freezing rain as frequently as states in the Northeast, but freeze events do occur. Some areas of Wisconsin can expect approximately 6-12 hours of freezing rain per year.
Freezing rain most frequently occurs during December and January, but fall and spring freeze events also happen.
Icy road conditions from the rain make vehicle accidents and slip and fall injuries common. It’s also common for people to lose power during freezing rain events, meaning that thousands can be left without a way to heat their homes during the coldest months.
3. Heat Waves and Droughts
As with the rest of the country, the risk of heat days is increasing in Wisconsin. Currently, Wisconsin has almost no “dangerous” heat days per year. The National Weather Service defines these as days where the heat index is 103F or above. By 2050, the number of dangerous heat days in Wisconsin will increase to 15 per year.
In addition to more dangerous heat days, Wisconsin will also see more “Local Hot Days.” Local Hot Days are defined as “Days at or above the 98th percentile temperature, or the temperature than an area could expect to see on the hottest 7 days of the year.” Essentially, Local Hot Days factor in what temperatures a local population is used to experiencing.
An increase in Local Hot Days is associated with health problems like strokes, and heat-related deaths are more likely to occur. Energy demands also increase from air conditioning use.
All parts of Wisconsin are expected to have an increase in Local Hot Days, but Grant County is particularly at-risk. By 2053, Grant is expected to have 5 consecutive days with temperatures at or above 100.4℉.
Droughts often accompany heat waves in Wisconsin. As an agricultural state, droughts can significantly affect Wisconsin’s economy. They also increase the risk of wildfire.s
Compared to the United States as a whole, Wisconsin is not at high-risk for flood disasters.
However, floods do occur in Wisconsin. They often happen in springtime when heavy rains and snowmelt cause rivers to overflow. Flash floods also occur in Wisconsin, especially in the summertime when thunderstorms release vast amounts of water on dry soil.
Wisconsin Flood Stats
- 273,400 properties at substantial risk in 2020
- 389,700 properties at risk by 2050
- 281,100 properties at significant risk by 2050
- 71,100 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
- 124,500 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000
Which Areas of Wisconsin Are Most At-Risk of Flooding?
Floods can occur in all parts of Wisconsin, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of Wisconsin with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations).
- Oconto: 58%
- Lake Wisconsin: 37%
- Ladysmith: 35%
- La Crosse: 35%
- Fond du Lac: 33%
- Richland Center: 33%
- Prairie du Chien: 32%
- Rhinelander: 32%
In addition to these areas, there are many major cities and towns in Wisconsin where thousands of properties are at risk. This includes over 12,000 properties in Milwaukee and nearly 6,000 properties in Madison.
Because of climate change, the risk of flooding is increasing in many parts of Wisconsin. By 2050, an estimated 8.3% of all properties in the state will be at risk of flooding.
Wisconsin has an average of 24 tornadoes per year. Most of these tornadoes are weak, and the state has not had an F5 or F4 tornado in recent history. However, F3 tornadoes do occur and can be destructive. Since 2000, there have been 4 tornado deaths in the state, 88 injuries, and over $134 million in property and crop damages. Because of this, Wisconsin ranks #18 in the USA for tornado risk.