Buildings are concentrated in places that are likely to be hit by a disaster such as a hurricane, flood or wildfire, researchers found. That includes both urban and rural hotspots.



More than half of the buildings in the contiguous U.S. sit in disaster zones. That's according to a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado. And thanks to climate change, those hotspots are growing more dangerous. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: When we talk about disaster hotspots, we're talking about places that are the most likely to see a wildfire, a flood, a hurricane or another natural disaster. Those disasters are expensive in every sense. Virginia Iglesias is the lead author of the new study.

VIRGINIA IGLESIAS: We know that every year we lose billions of dollars. We lose lives to natural hazards. And of course, climate change has a lot to do with this.

HERSHER: Climate change makes disasters more likely and more severe, but where people live also matters. After all, a wildfire in the wilderness isn't dangerous. It's natural.

IGLESIAS: If there are no structures, no people, nothing gets lost.

HERSHER: Iglesias and her colleagues analyzed the locations of millions of buildings in the U.S. going back to 1945. They wanted to know, are we building towns and cities in places that are the most risky? The answer is yes. Nearly 60% of buildings are in places in the top 10% for risk from floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. That's tens of millions of buildings concentrated in the most dangerous places. A.R. Siders studies climate and development at the University of Delaware. She wasn't involved in the new study

A R SIDERS: In the United States, we have a great deal of control over risk through our development, through local land use, through zoning, through where we allow development to occur.

HERSHER: She says studies like this one are particularly important for local governments because where new buildings are built and how to enforce building codes are local decisions.

SIDERS: They hopefully give an impetus for local governments to sit up and say we can address risk in our own communities by taking proactive steps to not allow new development in the most risk-prone areas.

HERSHER: In many parts of the country, that is not happening. The new study finds that development in areas with extreme wildfire risk has accelerated, especially since the 1980s. Past research has found similar trends in flood-prone coastal cities.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.