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

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)
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)
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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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