How Deadly Are Hurricanes?
Dorian is ferocious, like many recent high-wind tropical cyclones
Hurricane Dorian is assaulting the Bahamas with whipping winds and relentless rain, and it has the southeastern U.S. in its sights.
Dorian has reportedly killed one person as of this post—a 7-year-old boy in the Bahamas trying to evacuate from his home with his family. Given the size and strength of the storm, the death toll is likely to rise, potentially significantly.
Just how deadly can these forces of nature can be?
2,135 people in the U.S. reportedly died during 36 hurricanes that made landfall here from 1999 through 2018.* That’s an average of about 59 deaths per hurricane during that 20-year span.†
But the average is misleading, as averages tend to be: More than 70% of those deaths occurred in 2005, when the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina killed 1,518 people in Louisiana and its surrounding states, making it the third deadliest hurricane in recorded U.S. history. (The number of direct deaths attributed to Hurricane Katrina was revised to around 1,200 by the National Hurricane Center.)
In 2006, there were no hurricane-related fatalities, the only time that happened during the 20-year span.
The deadliest hurricane on record in the U.S. killed an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people in Galveston, Texas, in 1900.
Chief culprit in fatalities
No, it’s not the wind, as one might think given that factor’s salience in how hurricanes are popularly categorized. Not directly, anyway. Storm surge, an abnormal rise of water caused by strong winds that can travel several miles inland, is the leading cause of hurricane-related deaths.
Flooding caused by heavy rains is the second-leading cause of such fatalities.
The total number of deaths by hurricane is affected by many variables, including the frequency of these storms. Six hurricanes, on average, form over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, or Gulf of Mexico from June through November every year, known as the hurricane season. The U.S. coastline is hit by an average of three hurricanes, one of which is classified as major (winds of 111 miles-per-hour or greater), during a typical two-year period.
At its core, a hurricane is a tropical cyclone — a rotating, organized system of clouds and thunderstorms that begins over tropical or subtropical waters — with maximum sustained winds of 74 mph or higher. When such winds rise to a maximum sustained speed of 111 mph or higher, the hurricane is designated as major and labeled as Category 3, 4, or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Winds in Category 5 hurricanes are above 155 mph.
Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas as Category 5 but has been downgraded to Category 4 as of this post.
How to stay safe
Despite the death and havoc hurricanes often cause, there are ways to reduce the risk of getting injured and/or killed in one. The Red Cross breaks down what you should do before, during, and after a hurricane, including:
–Listen to local radio, NOAA Weather Radio, and/or local television stations for the latest information and updates
–Be prepared to evacuate quickly: Know your routes and destinations in advance, including local emergency shelters
–Check your emergency kit and replenish missing or dwindling items
–Avoid beaches, riverbanks, and flood waters if you go outside
–If the power goes out, use flashlights, not candles (presumably to reduce the risk of fire)
–Let those most important to you know you’re safe
–If you’ve been evacuated, don’t return home until authorities say it’s safe to do so
–Keep listening to local radio, NOAA Weather Radio, and/or local television stations for updates
*Source: Insurance Information Institute from data supplied by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Hurricane Center. Includes fatalities from high winds of less than hurricane force from tropical storms. In 2004, Hurricane Alex was considered a strike but technically not a landfall. In 2008, Hurricane Hanna made landfall as a tropical storm. In 2009, Hurricane Ida made landfall as a tropical storm. Does not include “Super Storm” Sandy, which began as a hurricane but made landfall as a post-tropical storm in 2012: In the U.S., 72 people reportedly died as a direct result of that storm.
†Only hurricanes associated with the Atlantic Ocean basin were included.