Welcome to the deadliest time of year for weather in the United States. As temperatures rise across the U.S., so does the incidence of weather-related deaths. Warm weather brings an increase in tornadoes and lightning, and the Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1. It’s worth noting that the weather events that draw the most media coverage and evoke our deepest fears, hurricanes and tornadoes, on average cause far fewer deaths than much more mundane weather occurrences. Here’s a list of the top 5 weather-related causes of death in the United States, based on statistics from several federal agencies.
Lightning strikes kill an average of 55 people per year in the United States, according to 30 years of statistics compiled by the National Weather Service through 2010. According to data gathered by several federal agencies, for the period from 1959 to 2006, Florida had the most lightning-related deaths, followed by Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Colorado. Perhaps surprisingly, an estimated 90 percent of lightning-strike victims survive the incident, although most suffer permanent neurological and other physical impairment. You’ve doubtless heard the obvious rules for lightning safety (get out of the open during storms, seek shelter indoors, etc.), but the National Lightning Safety Institute has some strange tales to tell. For example, it’s true that you can be struck by lightning while standing by a window indoors, and lightning can strike out of clear skies, from storms as far as 10 miles away. Finally, one 35-year study of lightning-related deaths in the U.S. found that 2.4% of victims were on the phone (presumably that is not such a risk factor today with so many cordless phones in use).
The NWS attributes an average of 56 annual deaths to tornadoes for the 30-year period ending in 2010, which doesn’t take into account the devastation caused by tornadoes in 2011. April and May of 2011 brought a record number of tornadoes to cities and towns in the South and Midwest. The NWS registered a single-month record of 758 tornadoes in April, including a daily record of 200 on April 27. May brought another 326 tornadoes, including the devastating EF-5 tornado that claimed 158 lives and leveled a large part of Joplin, Missouri. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the number of tornado fatalities for 2011 at 550, making it the fourth-deadliest year in U.S. history.
While hurricanes and tornadoes get the media spotlight in terms of weather-related deaths, floods actually kill far more people in the United States in an average year. The United States Geological Survey puts the annual death toll from flooding at around 140. There is a gray area in this category. Namely, what qualifies as a weather-related flood death? For example, flood statistics include many flood deaths resulting from dam failures. In some cases, heavy rains put the dams under pressure, even when the ultimate cause for the dam failure is later cited as human error or negligence. Who gets the blame there, Mother Nature, or Man? Regardless of that fine point, public safety officials point out that many flood-related deaths are avoidable. The USGS says that more than half of all flood deaths are auto-related, with drivers misjudging the depth of water on a road — with some even driving around Road Closed barriers — and having their car swept away. Many such deaths occur at night, when unsuspecting drivers may drive across a bridge or roadway that has washed out.
2. Cold Weather
According to the CDC, hypothermia is responsible for around 600 deaths each year in the United States. The Journal for the American Medical Association puts the figure at closer to 700 annual deaths, for the period 1979-1998. Many cold weather deaths have alcohol and underlying physical conditions as contributing causes.
1. Hot Weather
A CDC study of the five years ending in 2003 attributed 3,442 deaths to exposure to extreme heat, about 689 per year. So to answer the very common question, which is deadlier, heat or cold, the numbers are inconclusive. Using CDC numbers alone, hot weather appears to kill slightly more people in the U.S. each year.
One More: Hurricanes
Based on National Weather Service statistics for the 30 years ending in 2010, hurricanes killed an average of 47 people per year in the U.S. However, the massive death toll from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 skews that data. The NWS lists the 2005 hurricane death toll at 1,016. The National Severe Storms Laboratory puts the toll at 1,300, while the National Hurricane Center puts the number of deaths directly or indirectly related to Katrina at more than 1,800. That’s quite a discrepancy. Obviously, the massive death toll from Katrina, the third-deadliest hurricane in the United States since 1900, was a statistical anomaly. Katrina aside, the 30-year average for hurricane deaths is roughly 13 per year. To put that in perspective, rip currents caused 64 fatalities in 2010.
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