Deadlier Atlantic Hurricanes Killing More People of Color in the U.S., Study Finds
In the past few decades, meteorologists have found that hurricanes in the United States have been deadlier than normal, and that they have killed a disproportionate number of people of color, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
Tropical hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean are becoming more deadly as the planet warms, with 179 named tropical storms and hurricanes between 1988 and 2019 likely having caused 18,158 deaths, the study said.
In order to calculate the fatalities, the researchers looked not only at people who were hit by debris or drowned, but they examined the total number of deaths that occurred right before, during and following a storm, then compared the numbers to those during other years.
“It’s the difference between how many people died and how many people would have died on a normal day,” said lead author of the study Robbie Parks, who is an environmental epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, reported The Associated Press.
Parks said that, following a hurricane, the number of deaths go up due to injury, infections, lung and heart concerns and mental health issues.
Parks added that many of the most vulnerable and poorest people in the U.S. die from indirect causes, particularly after a storm, and that these numbers represent “an undercount.”
“People who have the least means suffer the most,” Parks said, as The Associated Press reported.
The study, “Short-term excess mortality following tropical cyclones in the United States,” was published in the journal Science Advances.
Most of the deaths occurred in counties where residents were primarily Black, brown and of Indigenous descent, which suggests government failures have been a factor, the study said.
“Cyclones don’t hit the whole country. They tend to hit places which have more Black, Indigenous and Latin people who’ve been historically underserved and overburdened through racism, and it’s these socially vulnerable communities who are bearing the brunt of post-cyclone excess deaths,” Parks said, as reported by The Guardian.
The biggest risk factor for the excess deaths following hurricanes was racial minority status.
NOAA hurricane scientist Jim Kossin of climate risk nonprofit First Street Foundation, who was not part of the study, said people need to have the means “to do more than just survive from day to day” following a storm, which is why there are more fatalities in poorer and more vulnerable communities, The Associated Press reported.
Just six percent of excess deaths following the most intense storms during the study period happened in the least vulnerable counties, compared with 57 percent in those where the most vulnerable live, as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index.
Nearly all — 93 percent — of the total excess deaths following a hurricane, as well as 70 percent that came after a named storm, have happened in the past 18 years as the climate crisis has intensified, reported The Guardian.
“This is a very important groundbreaking longitudinal study… it’s just not been done before in a [comparing] apples to apples way,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, as The Guardian reported. “We have to keep using these metrics as a baseline, adding more granular details like concurrent disasters, and tracking excess deaths and morbidity long-term.”