Carbon Monoxide Deaths Increase during Hurricane Season

Hurricanes cause immediate death and destruction and indirect carbon monoxide deaths, from poorly planned efforts to restore power.

By Rebecca Martin

The Atlantic hurricane season began on June 1st and ends November 30th. Predictions from Dr. Phil Klotzbach of the Colorado State University, one of the most trusted predictors of hurricane activity,  warn that named storms will increase 40% over the named storms in an average hurricane season. That means that 17 significant hurricanes could pose a danger to human life this year. In an average year we see around 14 named storms.

Carbon Monoxide Deaths are Connected to Hurricane Activity

The increase in hurricane activity is due to some continuing influences in weather and global conditions.

“Thanks to the ongoing La Nina global weather pattern and well-above-average Atlantic sea temperatures, including the Caribbean and the Gulf temperatures, the upcoming hurricane season is expected to be rough.” https://www.severe-weather.eu/tropical-weather/atlantic-hurricane-season-2021-forecast-mk/

The Local 10 News in Hollywood, Florida published an article on May 31 by meteorologist, Julie Durda, which covers generator information on the premise that “Generators are more of a ‘necessity’ for families during the hurricane season”. This timely article shows a pre-natural disaster approach to news very different from the approach we saw in Texas in the last blog. And rightly so as Florida requires permits and installation for generators which must often be powered by propane due to a lack of natural gas in many homes. Unfortunately, due to Covid and an increased demand, it could take six months or more to get a generator installed. This means many families will be opting for portable generators during this storm season.

carbon monoxide deaths come after hurricanes

Hurricanes and carbon monoxide poisoning are connected because of poorly planned efforts to restore electrical power after storms. If all homes had carbon monoxide alarms, much of this risk could be eliminated.

According to an article released by NPR on June 1st, forecasters once warned that 90% of deaths during hurricanes resulted from flooding related incidents. Our hurricane warning and preparedness have improved greatly over the last few years reducing the risk of death from storm surges or flooding.  During Hurricane Laura last year, there were no deaths due to the storm surge. Most of the deaths occurred in the aftermath of the storm including 14 carbon monoxide deaths due to improper use of generators. In recent years most of the deaths due to hurricanes were carbon monoxide poisonings.

Carbon Monoxide Deaths Come After Power Outages

The same thing happened during Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Many of the deaths occurred post-storm during long periods of power outages.

One of the issues, according to the NPR article is that people tend to stop paying attention to hurricane warnings once the storm has passed.

“The National Hurricane Center is working through its messaging and outreach to focus attention on generator safety to reduce deaths after a hurricane.” https://www.npr.org/2021/06/01/1000203891/a-new-hurricane-season-brings-a-new-threat-carbon-monoxide-poisoning

The vast majority of deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning after a hurricane occurred in homes without detectors, as it did in Texas after the catastrophic winter storm/power outage. Click here for our recent blog on that carbon monoxide disaster.

Generators Not Only Culprit

It is not just generators indoors which pose a risk during power outages following a storm. There are many ways carbon monoxide can enter a home when people are not aware of the risks.

-Carbon monoxide will be present if attempting to heat a home with a gas range or oven.

-Carbon monoxide can enter the home if a vehicle is left running in an attached garage even with the door open.

-Carbon monoxide can accumulate with the use of charcoal grills, hibachis, lanterns or portable camping stoves indoors.

-Any fuel burning device which is used indoors and not in compliance with its intended use can produce carbon monoxide and can be potentially lethal.

Detectors Could Eliminate Most Deaths

The vast majority of deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning after a hurricane occurred in homes without detectors.

It cannot be said often enough. Even if we are fully instructed on carbon monoxide safety, we often don’t know what neighbors are doing in multi-family units during a natural disaster. People become frantic and common sense is sometimes diminished when coping with days without power. Carbon monoxide detectors are an absolute necessity in disaster preparedness. And those detectors must be battery powered or have a battery backup.

Generators must always be placed at least 20 feet from the home with the exhaust pointed away from the home (or your neighbor’s home). Generators must never be used inside the home or in the garage.

During Hurricane Laura, a family of five perished in Lake Charles, Louisiana, due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Because of circumstances they were unable to evacuate with the rest of the family and decided to hunker down and ride out the storm. Relatives checked in on them once the storm had passed and they had all fared well and were fine. But they were running a generator in an open garage in the aftermath of the storm and when the wind closed the partially open door during the night, fumes entered the house ultimately killing four of the family and leaving one in critical condition who eventually passed away. Five deaths in one family at the same time.

There were more than 750,000 homes and businesses without power in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas after Hurricane Laura. But Hurricane Irma in 2017 brought power outages to over 6.8 million people in Florida. 129 people perished during Hurricane Irma, 44 of them directly and 85 indirectly from other causes. A report released by the National Hurricane Center in March of 2018 included a final death toll from the storm.

“Included in the report’s final death toll were 80 fatalities in Florida caused by indirect circumstances, such as falls during storm preparations, car crashes, electrocutions, carbon monoxide poisoning from running generators indoors and chainsaw accidents.”

A total of 16 people perished from carbon monoxide poisoning during the power outages following Hurricane Irma, according to the CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6730a5.htm#B1_down

The Worst Storms Cause the Most Carbon Monoxide Deaths

Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017, resulted in 68 directly caused deaths and 35 deaths indirectly. Indirect deaths include those who die from heart attacks, house fires, electrocutions from downed power lines, storm-related vehicle accidents due to road conditions, carbon monoxide and other accidents attributed to post-storm conditions. Hurricane Harvey was the second most costly Hurricane in US history behind Hurricane Katrina. And the second most deadly behind Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy was responsible for 285 deaths from the Caribbean to Canada. Nine of these deaths were attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Are we seeing an increase in hurricane activity due to global warming? According to senior climatologist Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

“The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

But he concedes that the storm was caused by “natural variability” but adds that it was “enhanced by global warming”. This is due to higher temperatures in the Atlantic with the waters off the East Coast being 5 degrees above normal with 1 degree of that being due to global warming. Jhordanne Jones, who co-authored the Colorado State University hurricane forecast says climate change is warming up our oceans which is causing hurricanes to intensify and that this increase in hurricanes may be the new normal.

Whatever the case, everyone agrees that this will be another year of increased hurricane activity which will last through the summer, gradually decreasing intensity towards the end of the hurricane season. And while more sophisticated warnings and greater hurricane preparedness have made evacuation more controlled and deaths due to storm surges less likely, we still face the storm which inevitably follows in the form of power outages.

We wrote about many of the difficulties in warning the population in marginalized neighborhoods previously and how important community mapping was in reaching those who may not be fluent in English or unable to evacuate due to lack of resources. This appears to be becoming more of an integral part of most states’ early warning systems. The move is on to also increase after storm preparedness in order to prevent indirectly caused deaths in the wake of hurricanes and other natural disasters. Specifically when the power grid itself is impacted.

President Biden has put together substantial programs for these communities to improve our disaster response and decrease the number of deaths following a hurricane or storm of any type.

Ultimately, when we look at the specific issue of carbon monoxide poisoning following a storm there are several main points. One is the education of the public as to the hazards posed by fuel burning devices during a power outage. Another is the well accepted fact is that these hazards are secondary to the use of carbon monoxide detectors capable of running on battery in all residences or places in which people sleep.

A third issue has been actively addressed which is informing and establishing protocols for first responders and emergency room personnel during a storm and immediately after during power outages. When our emergency workers are all on the same page when it comes to identifying potential carbon monoxide poisonings then we have a much better chance of saving lives. As we saw in Texas, more preparation needs to be done for post-storm care in order to avoid shortages in caring for those impacted. We should not be faced with quickly set up triage units determining who is in the most serious condition in order to disperse care. In Texas we saw large numbers of people presenting with potential carbon monoxide poisoning and hospitals overwhelmed.

The Forum on Policy Issues in Hurricane Preparedness and Response filed a report which identified several factors in our nation’s response which needed consideration. https://www.ametsoc.org/index.cfm/ams/policy/studies-analysis/hurricane-preparation-response/

One of these was the observation that one in five people in the US will be impacted by a hurricane.  Our focus has been on forecasting storms and the technological advances therein, at the expense of looking at land planning and the tremendous increase of residents in coastal areas. While evacuation becomes more organized, we are seeing people evacuating areas of low risk while those in high risk areas are not able to evacuate due to lack of infrastructure. Although we have made strides forward in preparedness

“The legislation, as a matter of urgency, should provide long-term, continuous funding, above the current budget levels, for hurricane research and for improved prediction services, communications, mitigation programs and response capability.”

One very important point in this report is that we have some of the necessary tools already in place, such as the media. While we are certain of their ability to provide ample warning of an impending storm, we also need to make sure that the same attention is paid to post-storm warnings and reaching the largest percentage of the population as possible. And perhaps to the end we need to categorize all dangerous storms in phases in order to keep the public tuned in to the same degree that they tune in for updates on the impending arrival and intensity of the storm itself. Reaching the public when the power is out is our first hurdle and delivering warnings about post-storm dangers is the next. And delivering those warnings to all of the population is the final barrier we need to cross through technology, community mapping and human responders in all communities

The 2021 hurricane season has begun and we now count on so many weather services for news and reliable forecasts. But let’s also hope that legislators address the issues which have plagued us in the past and caused the loss of life after the fact. And let us look at our own preparedness as two issues; the storm and then what comes after. Only by looking at the second part can we make sure that indirect deaths diminish the same way direct deaths have in the past four years.

2021 Promises to be an Active Hurricane Season

The Colorado State University forecast says that 17 named storms will occur this hurricane season. Of those, 8 will become hurricanes and of those, four will become major hurricanes reaching at least category 3. They also predict an above average chance that those hurricanes will make landfall along the US coastline and the Caribbean. As we run through the names for named storms for 2021; Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, Elsa, Fred, Grace. We have to wonder which ones will make a place in history along with Katrina, Sandy, Irma, Harvey and Laura?

A checklist for hurricane preparedness is available ready.gov

https://www.ready.gov/hurricanes

 

 

 

 

 

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