75 percent of US deaths from hurricanes are from water, not wind

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Something More Deadly Than Wind in a Hurricane

By: JON ERDMAN

Hurricanes are rated by wind, but you should fear the water more.

According to the National Hurricane Center, storm surge and rainfall flooding combined for 75 percent of all deaths in the U.S. from hurricanes, tropical storms or tropical depressions from 1963 to 2012.

Deaths from a tropical cyclone's winds or embedded tornadoes accounted for only 10 to 15 percent of fatalities in the U.S. in that time.

This may sound counterintuitive, since Category 1, 2, 3 hurricanes are rated based on their maximum sustained winds.

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2014 Hurricanes and Storms
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75 percent of US deaths from hurricanes are from water, not wind
Photo via NOAA
Photo via NOAA
Photo via NOAA
Photo via NOAA
Big waves crash ashore and into the pier at Seal Beach, California on August 27, 2014, where some overnight flooding occurred as the surging ocean water resulting from Hurricane Marie almost reached beachfront homes. And as surfers prep for what could be some of the biggest swells of the year, county and city officials are using tractors to fill in sand berms along coastal beaches, in a hopeful effort to avoid any flooding or other damage resulting from Hurricane Marie. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27: A general view of atmosphere during th huge swells generated by hurricane Marie Reach along the southern California coastline on August 27, 2014 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
A bogieboarder rides a wave at the wedge in Newport Beach, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Southern California beachgoers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Surf watchers are splashed at the pier in Malibu, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Southern California beachgoers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27: A general view of atmosphere during th huge swells generated by hurricane Marie Reach along the southern California coastline on August 27, 2014 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
The attraction of seeing the big waves resulting from Hurricane Marie continues to draw people to southern California beaches, as people view the waves crashing onto shore and into the pier at Seal Beach, California on August 27, 2014, where some overnight flooding occurred as the surging ocean water almost reached beachfront homes. And as surfers prep for what could be some of the biggest swells of the year, county and city officials are using tractors to fill in sand berms along coastal beaches, in a hopeful effort to avoid any flooding or other damage resulting from Hurricane Marie. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
A bird stands ashore as big waves crash into the pier at Seal Beach, California on August 27, 2014, where some overnight flooding occurred as the surging ocean water resulting from Hurricane Marie almost reached beachfront homes. And as surfers prep for what could be some of the biggest swells of the year, county and city officials are using tractors to fill in sand berms along coastal beaches, in a hopeful effort to avoid any flooding or other damage resulting from Hurricane Marie. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27: A general view of atmosphere during th huge swells generated by hurricane Marie Reach along the southern California coastline on August 27, 2014 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27: A general view of atmosphere during th huge swells generated by hurricane Marie Reach along the southern California coastline on August 27, 2014 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
An unidentified surfer gets assistance from a Los Angeles County lifeguard on a watercraft, as heavy waves crash against the pier in Malibu, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Southern California beachgoers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
In this Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 photo, a belly boarder takes on a big wave at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. Southern California coastal communities have been inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Kevin Warn)
A big wave from Hurricane Marie smashes against the Seal Beach pier in Seal Beach, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. The National Weather Service said beaches stretching 100 miles up the Southern California coast would see large waves and rip currents. Swimmers and surfers were urged to be aware of the dangerous conditions. (AP Photo/ Nick Ut )
A man is hit by waves on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, in Seal Beach, Calif. A low-lying street in the Southern California coastal community of Seal Beach has been inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A bogieboarder rides a wave at the wedge in Newport Beach, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Southern California beachgoers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A surfer rides a wave at the wedge in Newport Beach, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Southern California beachgoers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A bogieboarder rides a wave at the wedge in Newport Beach, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Southern California beachgoers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A large crowd gathers to watch surfers and body surfer ride waves at the wedge on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014 in Newport Beach, Calif. Beach goers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A surfer flies off a wave at the wedge in Newport Beach, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Southern California beachgoers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A bogieboarder rides a wave at the wedge in Newport Beach, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Southern California beachgoers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast of Mexico. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Hector Brown sweeps out his aunt and uncle's house in Seal Beach, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. The entire house and garage was flooded by a foot of water and muddy sand late Tuesday night after low-lying streets in the Southern California coastal community was inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
Beach front property is flooded after high tide and large waves caused heavy flooding in Seal Beach, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. A low-lying street in the Southern California coastal community of Seal Beach has been inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
In this Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 photo, a belly boarder takes on a big wave at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. Southern California coastal communities have been inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Kevin Warn)
In this Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 photo, residents carry sandbags to protect homes after high a tide and large waves caused heavy flooding in Seal Beach, Calif. A low-lying street in the Southern California coastal community of Seal Beach has been inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Kevin Warn)
A lifeguard tower knocked over by high tides sits on the beach as people stand on the sand wall on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, in Seal Beach, Calif. Parts of the low-lying Southern California coastal community of Seal Beach has been inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Beachgoers watch large waves crash on the shore at Seal Beach, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Residents in Southern California coastal areas filled sandbags and built sand berms Tuesday to ward against possible flooding from big and potentially damaging surf spawned by Hurricane Marie off Mexico's Pacific coast. A large southerly swell was expected to produce large waves, rip currents and strong longshore currents in Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Community volunteer Edwin Schakeroh, left, helps Gavin Greely a resident fill sand bags in preparing for an expected storm surge in Long Beach, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Southern California coastal areas are preparing for the arrival of big and potentially damaging surf spawned by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/ Nick Ut )
Watching from a safe distance behind a barricade of traffic cones, beachgoers watch huge waves crash onto the shore at The Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Potentially damaging surf spawned by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast is expected to produce large waves, rip currents and strong longshore currents in Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
In this Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 photo, a woman drives through a flooded street after high tide and large waves caused heavy flooding in Seal Beach, Calif. A low-lying street in the Southern California coastal community of Seal Beach has been inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Kevin Warn)
A man carries his board as he walks through the flooded beachfront properties, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, in Seal Beach, Calif. A low-lying street in the Southern California coastal community of Seal Beach has been inundated by a surge of rising seawater brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off Mexico's Pacific coast. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Onlookers gather along the beach to watch storm waves from Hurricane Marie in Seal Beach, Calif. in Seal Beach, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. The National Weather Service said beaches stretching 100 miles up the Southern California coast would see large waves and rip currents. Swimmers and surfers were urged to be aware of the dangerous conditions. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
A lifeguard watches surfers ride waves at the wedge on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014 in Newport Beach, Calif. Beach goers experienced much higher than normal surf, brought on by Hurricane Marie spinning off the coast on Mexico. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
This image provided by NASA shows Hurricane Marie taken fom the International Space Station Tuesday Aug. 26, 2014. The National Weather Service said beaches stretching 100 miles up the Southern California coast would see large waves and rip currents due to Marie. (AP Photo/NASA, Reid Wiseman)
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Certainly a hurricane or even a strong tropical storm is capable of wind damage.

The intense eyewall winds of Category 5 Hurricane Andrew destroyed over 25,000 homes and damaged 101,000 more in Homestead and the south Miami suburbs in August 1992.

Despite that devastation, 26 deaths – 15 in South Florida – were directly attributed to the hurricane.

Storm Surge: The Deadliest Threat

Half of all U.S. deaths from tropical cyclones are due to the storm surge, the rise in water levels from the tropical cyclone's winds piling water toward the coast just before and during landfall.

Storm surge is not simply a function of the maximum winds.

Hurricane Ike was not a "major" (Category 3 or stronger) hurricane at landfall in Galveston, Texas in September 2008. Yet the size of Ike's wind field generated a 15-20 foot storm surge that wiped out most structures on the Bolivar Peninsula of Texas.

Well before the modern age of satellites, television, and instant communication, a storm surge of up to 15 feet, with battering waves, claimed most of the 8,000 to 12,000 lives lost in the Galveston, Texas 1900 hurricane, the nation's deadliest.

To more clearly communicate the threat from storm surge, the National Hurricane Center will prepare experimental storm surge inundation maps when a hurricane or tropical storm is near landfall.

These maps will identify how deep the storm surge inundation may be above ground level in a worst-case scenario based on the forecast track, intensity and wind field.

Before a hurricane threatens, find out if you live in an evacuation zone. Knowing this – and heeding evacuation orders from local emergency managers – could save your life and those of your family members.

Rainfall Flood Threat

Let's consider two examples to illustrate this threat.

Hurricane Irene in 2011 may be one of the most forgotten U.S. landfalls, given Superstorm Sandy was just a year later.

There was surge flooding along the coast from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to southern New England, but this storm wasn't just a coastal danger.

Irene's legacy was its epic inland rainfall flooding from parts of New York state into New England, particularly in Vermont, where almost 2,400 roads, 800 homes and businesses and 300 bridges were destroyed or damaged from the flooding.

Of the 41 total U.S. deaths attributed to Irene, 21 of those were from rainfall flooding.

Now consider a system that wasn't officially a depression anymore when it inflicted its havoc.

Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001 soaked the Houston metro area as it made landfall, then dropped a massive second delugewhen its remnants moved south back over the Texas coast a few days later. Up to 37 inches of rain swamped parts of America's fourth largest city.

This $9 billion tropical storm, the costliest tropical storm in U.S. history, claimed 41 lives in the U.S. Twenty-seven of those died from rainfall flooding.

Hurricane Agnes in 1972 was barely so at landfall, Category 1 at its Florida panhandle landfall. However, it's final move and subsequent stalling over the Northeast triggered massive flooding. Of the 122 U.S. deaths, 113 were due to rainfall flooding.

The bottom line here is to respect the power of water in tropical cyclones. Don't become a statistic.

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