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Hurricanes More Likely to Kill Vulnerable Populations in the U.S., Study Finds

More than 90% of hurricane deaths analyzed occurred in U.S. counties that were ranked high on the CDC's social vulnerability index.

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Homes remain surrounded by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, September 11, 2005, in New Orleans.
Homes remain surrounded by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, September 11, 2005, in New Orleans.
Photo: David J. Phillip (AP)

Atlantic tropical storms are more likely to kill minorities and those in other vulnerable communities, according to a new study published in Science Advances.

A team of storm researchers and public health experts recently looked at Atlantic storms to calculate how many excess deaths occurred after a tropical storm. They looked at the thousands of deaths that were correlated to 179 named tropical cyclones that formed in the Atlantic from 1988 to 2019 to estimate “short-term all-cause excess deaths.”


They identified the excess deaths as the difference between the deaths counted in the immediate aftermath, and the “counterfactual number of deaths had a cyclone not occurred.” 84% of those deaths counted in the study occurred more recently, outlining how tropical storms have become deadlier over time. 94% of these deaths occurred in counties that ranked medium to high on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index. That index uses census data to track especially vulnerable communities.

Vulnerable communities according to the CDC’s index are often identified by a number of factors that make it harder for them to stay safe during and after a storm. This includes rate of disability, housing type, access to health insurance, ethnicity, employment, and access to transportation. Counties that ranked high in vulnerability according to this index had about 57% of excess deaths following a tropical storm, researchers found. On the other end of the spectrum, counties with the least vulnerable populations only about 6% of excess deaths.


Robbie Parks, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, explained that race was a large factor in predicting excess deaths. The analysis found the largest number of excess deaths in the New Orleans Parish after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. There were 719 excess deaths, the study said. According to recent Census data, more than half of New Orleans identifies as Black American, and about a quarter of residents live in poverty.

Overall disparities were especially high in older adults and especially men who identified as Native and Black compared to other groups. “This is in part due to not only lack of access to adequate short-term transportation but also inequitable access to financial resources, education, employment opportunities, and timely warnings on tropical cyclone proximity,” study authors wrote.

Parks explained the difference between official counts from federal agencies, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the study occurred because researchers considered incidents that followed storms. They used death registration data for the four decades analyzed and used computer modeling to estimate the number of excess deaths following a storm in the affected areas.

They also analyzed deaths the month of, and the month following a storm. Those deaths were compared to the average number of deaths in those counties in normal years when a storm didn’t reach that area. “If you died from a heart attack, it’s really hard to say that you died from a hurricane,” Parks said. “That indirect stuff is kind of at risk of being missed.”


Parks pointed out that there are gaps in the research included in this study. The team behind the study only looked at excess deaths in the continental U.S. This left out Hawaii and territories including Guam and Puerto Rico. “We want to look in the future because [Hurricane] Maria has been very well studied in the scientific community in terms of excess death,” he said, “So we want to expand the framework.” Parks hopes to eventually analyze tropical storm-related death and inequality in other countries too.

Understanding where the most vulnerable people are, and addressing those vulnerabilities could significantly reduce death tolls, Parks said, especially due to climate change increasing the intensity of tropical storms. The effects of tropical storms are compounded by other climate-related hazards, such as the outbreak of major health concerns like flesh-eating bacteria in floodwaters. Cases of people infected by the bacteria increased quickly after Hurricane Ian flooded much of Florida last September. Recent research has also noticed that some tropical storms are dropping more rain, increasing instances of flooding and other dangerous conditions.


Want more climate and environment stories? Check out Earther’s guides to decarbonizing your home, divesting from fossil fuels, packing a disaster go bag, and overcoming climate dread. And don’t miss our coverage of the latest IPCC climate report, the future of carbon dioxide removal, and the un-greenwashed facts on bioplastics and plastic recycling.