Hurricanes are deadly, but what happens after can be the real killer.
People suffer heart attacks cleaning up debris, fall off roofs, crash into trees, cut themselves with chainsaws and succumb to the slow-motion death of carbon monoxide poisoning.
This year, the National Hurricane Center is putting an emphasis on saving lives following a storm.
It’s an effort initiated as advances in forecasting, storm surge prediction and preparation awareness have led to fewer people being killed at the height of a hurricane’s assault.
Ed Rappaport, acting director of the NHC, announced the endeavor to mitigate post-storm deaths with more education about their frequency and how they happen this week (Wednesday) at the National Hurricane Conference.
“If we are going to reduce the number of indirect deaths following hurricanes, we need to know how they are occurring and in what numbers,” said Rappaport, who co-authored a 2014 study that looked more closely at how people die after storms.
About 44 percent of people who died in 59 hurricanes studied dating back to 1963 did so as a result of indirect storm impacts.
An indirect death is considered one that is not attributable to the forces of the storm, and would not be expected in the absence of a storm. Direct deaths are those such as people who drown in storm surge, who are crushed under a collapsed home, or hit by flying debris.
The study was published in the American Meteorological Society Journal two years ago, but Rappaport said the NHC wanted to highlight it this year as part of the effort to increase the awareness of post-storm safety.
“We have to keep people from jumping on the roads right after the storm,” said Palm Beach County Emergency Manager Bill Johnson. “And we know the cardiac issues that happen.”
Heart attacks accounted for the largest percentage of post-storm deaths at 34 percent. Of those, 3 percent occurred during evacuation or the return home.
Another 12 percent of deaths, in addition to the heart attacks, were attributed to accidents or other health-related issues that occurred during evacuation.
Other notable categories included:
• Car accidents between vehicles, 12 percent
• Cars running into trees, 3 percent
• Chainsaw accidents, 3 percent
• Fire, 4 percent
• Carbon monoxide poisoning, 5 percent
• Electrocution, 5 percent
• Falls, 4 percent
• Medical equipment outage, 1 percent
• Hypothermia, 1 percent
Hypothermia may seem an unusual threat during a tropical cyclone, but prolonged exposure to water even as warm as 80 degrees can be deadly. This was especially an issue with 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, according to the 2014 study.
In half of the storms analyzed, more people died from incidents that happened after the storm, than because of a direct impact. While indirect deaths can occur before a storm makes landfall, Rappaport said it’s two-to-three times less likely than after the storm.
Also, about 58 percent of indirect storm deaths are men.
“The wind is frightening, the preparations are frightening, but we have to expand our messaging that it’s outside of that scary part of the storm that you also need to be careful,” said Craig Setzer, chief meteorologist for a CBS-4 in Miami, who participated in a discussion on reducing indirect storm deaths. “One thing we stress is that whatever you do, do it with great care and caution, and don’t get hurt, because rescuers might not be able to make it to you in time.”
Past safety campaigns have focused on avoiding storm surge deaths. Nearly half of direct storm-related deaths are from people who drown as wind-driven saltwater floods ashore. Another 27 percent of direct deaths are drownings in freshwater flooding from rain.
In 2017, the NHC introduced storm surge watches and warnings. Officials there believe it’s no coincidence that preliminary information shows no one drowned in storm surge despite 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes.
“We were able to pull evacuations back 50 percent and no one died from storm surge,” said Jamie Rhome, a storm surge expert with the NHC. “Never forget how far we’ve come.”
Hurricane Irma killed seven people in the U.S. directly, including four people in Florida. Two people died in Duval County when their tent flooded, a Manatee County man died after he fell during the hurricane trying to secure his boat, and an 86-year-old man in Broward County who died after he opened his door during the storm and was blown over by a wind gust.
In contrast to the few deaths directly attributable to Irma, 85 people in the U.S. died in incidents indirectly related to the storm. The indirect deaths included a combination of falls, car accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning from generators, chainsaw accidents and electrocution.
Fourteen people living in a Hollywood nursing home also died from overheating when the electricity in their facility failed and there was no backup to power the air conditioning.
“In one sense, being hit by Irma was less deadly than the aftermath,” Setzer said. “Recovery is sometimes the worst part of the event.”