Warnings of Hurricane Irma’s power blasted over cable and local news in Florida last week. The images during the storm – of palm trees cruelly bent, flooded streets and staggering waves – were inescapable. But as residents boarded their windows, raided supermarket shelves and prepared to take shelter, few talked about the hurricane’s true danger: its aftermath.
From 2000 to 2014, Atlantic hurricanes, tropical storms and tropical depressions have killed 1,853 people in the United States, according to Edward Rappaport, acting director of the National Hurricane Center. (This number would increase significantly if deaths discovered after Katrina but of uncertain association with the hurricane were included.) More than half of these deaths were caused not by wind, water or falling debris, but by “indirect” factors, including fatalities during cleanup. Direct deaths, as defined by the National Weather Service, result from a product of the storm such as flooding, rip currents or the storm surge, and they tend to draw the big headlines during storm coverage. Far more numerous, though, are the indirect deaths not caused by meteorological events.
For the 10 deadliest hurricanes since 2000 (Katrina, Sandy, Rita, Ike, Frances, Irene, Isabel, Ivan, Charley and Gustav), indirect deaths outnumbered direct deaths for 7 of 10 storms. Indirect deaths predominated overall, increasing in prevalence to account for 65 percent of all storm fatalities once wind speed at landfall exceeded 90 knots, which researchers say has to do with the impact on the power grid. A number of deaths occur well after the rain has stopped; debris cleanup accounted for a quarter of the 201 fatalities reported in Florida during 2004-2005, the last time the state had such an active hurricane season, according to an analysis by the Sun Sentinel. Floridians fell off roofs, ladders and trees while trying to clean up after the storm; several suffered heart attacks from the exertion or had accidents while operating machinery.
Many more fatalities happened when victims chose to leave safe shelter after the storm. Of the 964 deaths indirectly caused by the top 10 deadliest hurricanes since 2000, 27 were from electrocution, instances similar to a Houston man’s being killed by a live electrical line when he tried to wade through Harvey floodwaters to save his sister’s trapped cat. Another 32 deaths involved trees: a tree trimmer in Ormond Beach, Florida, helping with the Hurricane Matthew cleanup died when a massive log rolled on top of him. Fifty-six of these deaths were car accidents, including an Orlando man who perished at an intersection where the traffic signals lost power after Hurricane Charley. Others died from open flames (20) and falls (31) in unlit stairwells or from ladders or roofs.
Different storms present different hazards. Hurricane Sandy resulted in a significant number of carbon monoxide poisonings from combustion generators kept in enclosed spaces (15 of the 82 indirect deaths during Sandy). Cardiovascular ailments were significant during Katrina, claiming 318 lives. Heart attack deaths are common during the stress and physical exertion a storm brings — bailing out flooded homes, clearing debris, securing boats, dealing with exposure to heat.
Although the National Weather Service classifies drowning deaths as direct fatalities, the recent events in Houston have shown that these can occur after the storm, as well. During and after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, 78 percent of the people who drowned as a direct result of hurricane Matthew died in their cars, meaning they left the safety of their homes despite advice to stay put.
There’s an obvious commonality for nearly all these deaths: The victim was outside. Local governments often mandate curfews to keep residents off the streets during certain times of day or night, ostensibly to prevent crime. While the effects of curfews in preventing fatalities have not been studied, the numbers make a strong case that they could save lives: Adherence to a strict curfew would have prevented the 18 vehicle-related drownings from Hurricane Matthew. Perhaps a strict curfew could have prevented the five preparation- and repair-related injuries and the two electrocutions, as well. In all, that would account for more than half the 43 deaths associated with Matthew. Three of four who died in Volusia County, Florida, after Matthew were outside, one during curfew and two after curfew had been lifted. Although implementing or extending curfews, even for several days, could save lives, Floridians won’t be safe unless they heed warnings to stay inside even after the weather appears calm.