Hurricane center targets rise in preventable deaths after storm – Orlando Sentinel


Hurricanes are terrifying and deadly forces, but experts are increasingly concerned about the number of deaths recorded after a storm passes, as they have observed an increase in the number of indirect deaths in recent years.

“Now we see more people dying after the storm,” said National Hurricane Center branch chief Michael Brennan. “In Louisiana, especially after Laura and Ida, many carbon monoxide related deaths from generator misuse in these so-called indirect deaths.”

With the official start of hurricane season on June 1, the National Hurricane Center wants to bring those numbers down as it did when it stepped up efforts to educate the public about storm surge fatalities.

Since 2017, the NHC has recorded seven storm surge-related deaths. By comparison, in the past two storm seasons alone, 70 indirect deaths have been caused by Hurricanes Laura and Ida alone.

Last September, Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana and swept through the northeastern United States, causing $75 billion in damage of the $80 billion sustained throughout the season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ida also caused 55 direct deaths and 34 indirect deaths – 26 in Louisiana. Of these, 13 were due to heat exhaustion during power outages, five died due to exacerbated medical conditions during evacuation, six were attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning, one a was killed after falling from a rooftop and another died in a confrontation with an alligator near a flooded swamp in St. Tammany Parish.

Last year, Category 4 storm Ida brought an intense 20-foot storm surge to parts of Louisiana that saw more than a million customers lose power, according to NOAA. In recent years, the NHC has campaigned to warn residents that it’s not a hurricane’s winds they should be afraid of, but rather its waters, which are traditionally more deadly.

In 2019, the NHC released a study showing that 90% of hurricane-related deaths were water-related, with 49% of that statistic involving storm surges. Since then, the NHC has targeted residents with deadly storm surge messages in hopes of getting them to evacuate flood-prone areas. During Ida, only one person in Louisiana died in the storm surge. NHC Director Ken Graham is pleased to see a lower distribution of storm surge deaths over the past two seasons despite intense tropical activity, but he finds the high number of indirect fatalities striking.

“And I think we’re making a difference with storm surge,” Graham said. “Despite this busy time, more people have lost their lives to carbon monoxide poisoning than to storm surge since 2017. It’s staggering.”

The 2020 season Hurricane Laura also hit the Louisiana area with strong storm surge. Laura directly killed seven people in the United States. None of the deaths were reported as storm surge related and all seven appeared to have died from falling trees. However, there were 34 indirect deaths in Louisiana and Texas – all 34 were attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The improper use of generators is not the only factor that puts residents at risk. In powerless areas, heat often becomes a dangerous variable for medically vulnerable people, and novice chainsaw users trying to fell trees can be a hazard to themselves. For these reasons and more, the NHC is taking action, said Dan Brown, the NHC’s alert coordinating meteorologist.

“We will increase our post-storm messaging. This is a big priority this year. After the passage of a hurricane, residents must take many precautions during the recovery phase. If you don’t know how to use a power tool, find someone. Remember to rehydrate. Keep the generator properly ventilated and away from inside your home,” he said.

Though post-storm deaths aren’t the only blight on the hurricane center’s safety efforts. Water is always the big killer. Although storm surge-related fatalities have declined over the past five years, fatalities from freshwater flooding are high. Ida in particular saw that of the 55 direct deaths recorded, 48 were due to freshwater flooding in the northeastern United States according to NOAA.

Since 2017, there have been 175 freshwater deaths in the United States, Brown said. This is just another reason why the NHC plans to increase its messages. Although the NHC already has quite a large following.

After Ida, the NHC began including safety messaging in its social media outreach and in its key messages at the bottom of its tropical cyclone discussion. Before Ida landed, the NHC Key Messages graphic was viewed by 27 million people between August 26 and 30. There were still 11 million impressions made on Twitter.

“We want to reach even more people than that,” Brown said. “In our post-storm messaging, we scale up with the hazards that pose the greatest threat and ensure people know what causes injury and death after a storm.”

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