5 Deadliest Hurricane Mistakes

Posted by on January 12, 2012 in Latest News | Comments Off on 5 Deadliest Hurricane Mistakes

Hurricanes have been called the most dangerous storms on earth. Each year on average, 84 hurricanes, typhoons (Western Pacific), and cyclones (Indian Ocean) are formed throughout the world, and each year these storms devastate coastlines from Texas to Taiwan. It is estimated that as a result of these meteorological monstrosities, 20,000 people are killed in any given year though there are wild fluctuations that sometimes send the annual hurricane casualty-count skyrocketing. These are the great and devastating moments in history when the death-toll from single storms have reached near-biblical proportions.

Included in these extreme weather events are the The Great Bhola Cyclone of 1970 that hit East Pakistan (Today’s Bangladesh), that killed anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 people, and the 2008 storm that struck Myanmar that took 140,000 lives.  It is important for hubris and “can’t-happen-here” syndrome not to take over and for those that live in the Western World to remember that the tragic loss of human life from tropical weather events is not relegated to exotic far-flung corners of the Earth. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 sent a storm surge over what was once called the Manhattan of the South, that killed 12,000 people and much fresher in the collective American memory is Hurricane Katrina, the storm that devastated New Orleans and killed nearly two thousand.

In the face of these grim numbers, one should not remain an unaffected passer-by. Rather, we should take from these horrific expressions of Mother Nature’s fury, lessons that we may use in the future to protect ourselves and our loved ones from becoming another hurricane statistic. It is in this same vein that we have looked at historical data, first-hand accounts, and feedback from hurricane and emergency management experts to determine the 5 deadliest mistakes you can make during a hurricane.

Mistake #1: Thinking you are out of harm’s way because you’re not near the coast

With the advent of advanced warning systems, the storm surge, once the biggest threat of a hurricane, has lost it’s place in the pinnacle of a hurricane’s hierarchy of doom. Residents of coastal regions and low-lying areas now have at the very least, hours to prepare for an oncoming storm and it’s deadly surge. The problem with this is that people in inland areas are not nearly as prepared for the onslaught of rain and choked waterways as those that dwell near the coast and become victims of a hurricane’s biggest, though little thought-of threat—inland flooding.

In a 2011 statement released by NOAA, it was stated that inland flooding now accounts for 59% of all deaths related to hurricanes. John Cangialosi, hurricane specialist for the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County says that of these, one third are due to individuals driving on flooded streets that are unable to gauge the depth and strength of the moving water.  People may also drive in to unseen holes or be carried away to bloated rivers and streams.

Celena Sylvestri of Quintin, NJ didn’t think that she was in danger. At approximately 1:30 am, on Sunday, August 28, 20 year old Celena was driving to her boyfriend’s apartment along Interstate 40 when floodwaters from Hurricane Irene’s torrential rains drove the Salem River over its banks. The terrified young woman frantically called her boyfriend, then the authorities for help as the force of the rushing water prevented her from opening the driver side door and began filling up her vehicle. At approximately 9:30 am, Celena Sylvestri’s body was found 80 feet from the highway, still strapped into her seat.

With emergency response workers typically on the scene in many other calls, and due to the extremely difficult process of rescuing those that are carried away in raging flood waters, it is advised that people ensure they are not on a flood plane when deciding on shelter and to avoid driving until authorities give the all-clear. Tragic events such as those described in this section do not need to occur. Following these simple instructions can help you making a deadly mistake.

Mistake #2:  Not Evacuating When Urged To Do So

Brian Murray, Community Liaison of the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Managementoffers up some simple, yet sage words of advise for preparing for any tropical weather event: “Hide from the wind and (more importantly) run from the water.” This, in essence means that if a hurricane is approaching and you’re near the coast, you should head for the hills if ordered by emergency management authorities.

This is a telling statement that illustrates a hurricane’s most destructive force, the storm surge. Storm surges are usually the most destructive element of a hurricane on the immediate coast. These walls of water may in some instances be as high as 20 feet above the normal tide. In New Orleans, nearly 1000 people drowned as a result of hurricane Katrina’s storm surge that breached the city’s levy system. Many of these people either were unwilling or unable to heed the evacuation orders.

Another example of the deadly consequences of riding out the storm when the authorities say otherwise comes out of Mississippi. In 1969, Hurricane Camille struck the Upper Gulf Coast with the most powerful tropical winds ever recorded in an American hurricane. Officials urged all residents near the ocean to pack up and leave. Residents of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi chose to have a now infamous “hurricane party” the Walter Cronkite commented on when he toured the area. He said, “This is the site of the Richelieu apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi…This is the place where 23 people laughed in the face of death and where 23 people died.”

Mistake #3: Sheltering Near Trees

Many people fail to take into account the power of a thirty-foot tall tree being blown over by sustained hurricane force winds, but it is estimated that falling trees account for approximately 30% of all tropical cyclone deaths. You may feel perfectly secure in your home, waiting for the tempest to pass when whoosh, an evergreen plows through your living room ceiling at the force of gravity plus the the brute strength of winds that may be in excess of a hundred miles an hour or more.

A study conducted by Kent State University found that it takes only three seconds for winds at 110 miles per hour to snap the tree-trunks of hardwood trees. At 91 mph, the tree will be uprooted. A troubling finding for people in the Southern United States, especially in the upper Texas Gulf Coast, a region that is part of what is known as “The Pine Curtain (because of the proliferation of pine trees),” softwoods, such as evergreen and other pines will snap at three seconds of 94 mph gust and uproot at only 87 mph.

During hurricane Irene the bulk of the deaths that occurred during the actual storm were those caused by falling trees or branches. 11 year old Newport News, VA resident Zahir Robinson was lying in bed when a gust of wind from the storm blew a tree through his bedroom ceiling. He was pinned to his bed and by the time rescue workers arrived at the home, it was too late. Zahir was pronounced dead at the scene.

It is stories like Zahir’s that stress the importance of knowing what dangers the trees near your place of shelter may pose. Experts say that one way to prevent accidents such as this is to prune regularly, and to be aware of where you are, and the possible wind propelled dangers around you.

Mistake #4: Running a Generator Indoors

We rely on electricity to make our coffee in the morning, run our televisions, charge our laptops, and even to power up our toothbrushes. When it becomes clear that a hurricane is about to make landfall, you can make a sure bet that one of the hottest commodities around are gas-powered generators. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of one of the basic “don’ts” when it comes to using one of these (sometimes essential) portable power sources—don’t run them indoors or in other unventilated areas.

The Centers for Disease Control issued a 2005 statement verifying that 28 deaths occurred as a result of the improper use of portable generators after hurricanes.  In addition to this, hundreds were hospitalized for respiratory injuries that were sustained. Why? Portable generators run on gasoline, and a bi-product of the utilization of gasoline as a power source is carbon monoxide. This emission is particularly deadly because it is colorless, odorless, tasteless and initially a non-irritant.

At high concentrations, carbon monoxide can cause unconsciousness in just two to three breaths and death in less than three minutes. During the hot summer months, when hurricanes are most likely to hit, people use these generators to run fans, refrigerators, and even air conditioning units. It is this use that causes carbon monoxide poisoning deaths to rise in the aftermath of hurricanes. It is thus of the utmost importance that you read the manufacturer’s warning on these products and ensure that your generator is never in a basement, indoor room, garage, or anywhere near a door or window where CO2 can make its way into your home. Doing so will prevent you from making this very deadly hurricane mistake.

Mistake #5:  Going outdoors immediately after a Hurricane

It’s only human nature to want to see the aftermath of such major weather events. True, the damage is often spectacular, especially after storms on the higher end of the saffer-simpson scale.  For weeks after Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, I was struck by how much the landscape had changed. It was as if a very large gang of unruly children vandalized the area. Everywhere electrical lines dangled, trees were snapped in two, the roofs of strip malls were peeled upwards as if they were the tops of sardine tins, and there was not a square foot of ground in the area not strewn with debris of some sort. Incredible as these sights are, its best to hold off on the sight seeing until the authorities have given the all-clear to leave your homes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that the bulk of hurricane deaths in the United States do not happen during the storm, rather, it is those individuals that let curiosity get the best of them in the aftermath of a tropical weather event that tend to make up the largest percentage of the casualty count. And most of these people are those that decide to make their way through floodwaters and get caught in positions that make them unable to be saved by emergency response workers. Of the 43 victims of hurricane Irene, the bulk of these were from drowning in the aftermath of the storm rather than the initial storm surge.  One 45 year old man even died as a result of a fatal canoe ride down his flooded street.

Downed electrical lines also pose a huge danger for those that venture outside after the storm. In Southbridge, MA Richard Gargone only walked to his front porch and touched the railing. Unfortunately, this would be the last stroll he’d take. Downed power lines made his metal railing live and he was killed instantly. So to was a man in Spring Valley, New York who was electrocuted while trying to save a child caught in floodwaters.  In order to avoid being electrocuted in the post-disaster devastation, ensure that you only leave your home when it has been officially declared to do so and to wait for official emergency response crews to take care of any and all downed power lines and other electricity related issues. Doing so will help to make sure you don’t become another name on the hurricane victim’s list and that you will survive to see another storm.