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| Earth | Human World on Nov 27, 2012

Who died during Hurricane Sandy, and why?

Hurricane Sandy took over 100 lives in the United States. Most were over the age of 65. Most deaths were from drowning.

This house was destroyed in Jersey Shore, New Jersey. Image Credit: Shayna Marie Meyer

The great advances in weather modeling are what let meteorologists release and issue watches and warnings in advance of a dangerous storm. The deadly tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011, for example, was a great forecast that offered plenty of warning time for the public about the huge threat for large, violent tornadoes. Hurricane Sandy, also, was a forecasting success by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts model (ECMWF), as it showed Sandy pushing into the U.S. Northeast seven to 10 days in advance of the storm. In the weather forecasting community, when we have plenty of time to issue appropriate watches and warnings, then we pray and hope that people take the storm seriously and that the casualty rate will be zero. For Hurricane Sandy, unfortunately, the casualty rate was not zero. Hurricane Sandy killed 106 people in the United States alone. The New York Times published an informative representation of Sandy’s death toll on November 17, 2012, which includes info on how each victim died. In this post, I group the Times’ information differently, to find out which age groups were affected the most and look into the causes of the death toll. Is there a way we could have prevented these deaths? How can we make the watch/warning system better to avoid casualties from major storms like Sandy? What can we do to prevent 106 deaths the next time a big storm threatens the U.S. Northeast or anywhere else?

Read on, to get the facts.

Damage at Union Beach in New Jersey from Sandy. Image Credit: Devin Matthew Toperek

Out of the 106 deaths in the United States, the majority of the deaths occurred due to drowning. In fact, 49 deaths were due to drowning in homes and cars. After drowning, 20 deaths were blamed on falling trees, which mainly occurred inland. There were reports of trees falling into homes, cars, and even during the clean-up efforts after Sandy dissipated. The third most common death from Sandy occurred when mostly senior citizens fell from the top of stairs due to no power and having very little light to navigate in their homes. Without any light, 12 people succumbed to injuries from nasty falls. Nine deaths occurred due to carbon monoxide poisoning, after people left their generators running indoors.

Drowning was the number cause of death from Hurricane Sandy.

The “other” deaths that are included in the graph above resulted from electrocution, debris crashing into people in the basements and in cars, and others not receiving medical aid fast enough to prevent loss of blood or oxygen.

After looking at the reasons for deaths caused by Hurricane Sandy, I decided to create five age groups to see which age group was most affected. I used 18 years of age and younger, ages 18-24, ages 25-44, ages 45-64, and ages 65 and older. The most deaths – 49 – were associated with ages 65 and older. Second-largest death toll – 34 deaths – occurred in the 45-64 age group. There were six deaths in the 25-44 age group – five deaths in the 18 and younger age group – and nine deaths in the 18-24 age group. Overall, a large majority of the deaths occurred over the age of 50 across the U.S. Northeast.

Bar graph that shows the casualties via age groups. A large majority of the deaths occurred from senior citizens (49 deaths).

We in the weather forecasting business walk a fine line when it comes to watches and warnings about dangerous weather events. If we warn too loudly about storms that turn out to be no real threat, people stop listening. But if we don’t warn loudly enough for a truly dangerous storm, people may be injured or even killed. Personally, I felt that some members of the public along the New Jersey and New York coasts underestimated the seriousness of Sandy. This mindset is dangerous and probably caused some deaths. Could watches and warnings for Sandy have been more effective? The local National Weather Service offices issued various watches and warnings such as “high wind warnings” and “flood warnings” for specific areas. After Sandy dissipated, the National Weather Service’s “Service Assessment” should have met to create an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the warning system and response for this storm. In the case of Sandy, however, this assessment was terminated for unknown reasons. You can read a full account of what occurred via Mike Smith’s blog that explains the questions regarding why the assessment was randomly canceled.

Again speaking personally, I think the term “hurricane warning” strikes more fear among people than “high wind warning.” People know what a hurricane can do to a region. Did the general public know what a high wind warning is? Did some define it as it being just another a windy day? Had actual hurricane warnings been issued, could we have lowered the death toll? Would people have taken Sandy more seriously?

These questions are important, if we’re to improve prevent such a large loss of life during future storms.

Jersey coast after Sandy struck the shore. Image crdit: NOAA

Finally, it’s frustrating and disheartening to realize that some of these deaths could have been prevented. An example would be the nine deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. And I read quite a few entries on the New York Times post of people who drowned in their basements. If you live in a flood prone area, you should evacuate. If you cannot evacuate, you need to move into the center of your house (preferably a bathroom) and avoid the basement at all costs. Flooding and storm surge kill more people than winds during a hurricane, and going to the lowest floor possible only works when a tornado is approaching your home. I repeat, never go to the lowest floor of your house in a flood prone area near the coast when a hurricane is making landfall. Always go to a higher floor and stay in the centralized area of your house, preferably in a bathroom.

Of course, the best way to escape a hurricane is to simply evacuate and move inland. Since a large majority of the deaths were of people ages 65 and older, it makes you wonder if these people had a way to evacuate. Did they have family and friends who could have helped them evacuate? Overall, this is a very horrible situation that I wish never happened.

Bottom line: Most deaths from Hurricane Sandy – 49 deaths – occurred among people older than age 65. The most common way to die was by drowning in homes and cars. If you are driving your car into a flooded area, you need to remember this phrase: Turn around, don’t drown. If you are unsure how deep the water is, then you should turn around and avoid the risk of getting stuck and possibly drowning in your car. Prayers go out to all of the victims and families that were affected by this disastrous and deadly storm.