Why didn’t Hurricane Irma kill more Americans? Thank the meteorologists

Hurricanes would bring devastating death tolls in the 1900s, killing thousands. (Sept. 12, 2017)


During a hurricane in 1900, a storm surge rose out of the Gulf of Mexico and annihilated Galveston, Texas, killing about 8,000 men, women and children.

In 1935, at least 408 people died when another cyclone slammed into the Florida Keys, many of them World War I veterans working on construction projects.

And in 1957, Hurricane Audrey’s storm surges crashed into the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, killing 390 people.


Hurricane Irma, which slammed into Florida over the weekend, was in a similar league as those storms in its sheer power, and the number of people living in vulnerable areas has only grown.

So how has the number of deaths — in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina as of Monday night — remained in single digits?

The answer is the modern science of hurricane monitoring and preparation, which has saved countless lives as forecasting, satellite monitoring and government planning have dramatically improved in recent decades.

One study in the journal Epidemiologic Reviews calculated that America suffered an average of 1,400 hurricane deaths per decade from 1910 to 1939, 700 deaths per decade from 1940 to 1969, and about 250 deaths per decade from 1970 to 1999.

“The number of people killed in hurricanes halves about every 25 years, in spite of the fact that coastal populations have been increasing, because of what we’re doing with forecasting,” said Hugh Willoughby, a professor of meteorology at Florida International University in Miami.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s errors in storm tracking have been cut in half in the last dozen years, giving residents 36 total hours of advance notice that a hurricane is expected, up from 24 hours five years ago, he said.


With Irma, he said, “The emergency response at all levels of state government was really, really good. They did the right things, they said the right things. They gave people good advice and they didn’t minimize the threat.”

Irma was one of the most powerful storms to ever crawl out of the Atlantic.

After ripping through Caribbean islands with Category 5 winds, killing at least 37 people, it weakened slightly as it took direct aim at Florida, whose explosive real estate development in recent decades has made it the nation’s third-most-populous state.

Florida was slammed with huge storm surges, violent winds and heavy rains that socked the peninsula from south to north, flooding towns and knocking out power to millions of people.

But the most shocking thing about Irma may be what it didn’t do: kill in large numbers.

The greatest threat from a hurricane comes not from its winds, but from its surges of ocean waters that flood shorelines, leaving survivors in buildings little way to escape. A 2014 National Hurricane Center study estimated that 90% of American hurricane deaths were somehow water-related, mostly drownings. Between 5% and 10% of deaths were due to winds, not counting tornadoes.

The survival lesson is clear: Get people away from flood-prone areas.

All along the state’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts, people heeded forecasters’ predictions and government orders and evacuated before the danger hit.

“This was an extraordinary event, and in some places we got surges far more than predicted,” said Heather Carruthers, who left her home in the Florida Keys and took her family to the relative safety of Orlando. Parts of the island chain were hammered by several feet of dangerous storm surge.

“When they were looking at a storm of this size, as well as its intensity, we knew it was not something that you gamble with,” said Carruthers, a Monroe County commissioner. “This is one you get out of the way for. We think we made the right call.”

Richard Olson, director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University, said authorities had gotten much better at making the danger clear to the public. “There’s been real clarity on ‘get the hell out of Dodge,’ ” he said.

In modern times, when hurricane deaths come, it’s often “in areas with flooding that nobody was expecting,” Olson said.

The most recent example is last month’s Hurricane Harvey, which dumped several feet of rain over parts of Texas and killed at least 70 people, mostly in flooding.

In Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans in 2005 and remains America’s deadliest storm in decades, one mortality study found that many of the 1,170 or more victims died in flooding near where the storm breached man-made levees.

The previous most ruinous storm to hit Florida was Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Many of the 30 or so people who died around Miami — the area hardest hit — were crushed in collapsed buildings or mobile homes, while most of the rest suffered heart attacks and other medical incidents in the two weeks after the storm.

The death toll made little sense to some residents, who imagined “anywhere from tens to hundreds or thousands of victims buried in and under debris,” or spun conspiracy theories about “the existence of mass graves, secret morgues, and the clandestine removal of dead bodies by refrigerated trucks or military trains by night,” one post-storm report noted in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

And when the rumors couldn’t be confirmed, “some alleged that the government, Medical Examiner Department and news media were participating in a massive coverup to allay the fears of the public in an effort to protect the tourist industry,” the report said.

Hurricane Andrew nonetheless prompted the state to overhaul its building codes to prepare for the next storm.

Leslie Chapman-Henderson, head of Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a nonprofit formed in 1998, said all of the group’s original recommendations had “long since been adopted in the minimum standards” for construction in Florida.

In the weeks and months ahead, experts will examine how buildings built with those standards held up. Some residents felt confident.

James Burke, 61, had no idea what would happen to his home in Naples in southwest Florida during the hurricane. The forecasts and dire warnings had him in a panic. Could it stand up to 100-mph winds?

After briefly checking out a shelter, Burke and his family returned to their home and nervously hunkered down. As the storm picked up, it became clear the house was holding its own. He even went out on his lanai to watch trees fall. “It was pretty intense, but we never felt endangered,” Burke said.

For now, Chapman-Henderson sounded more worried about the behavior of homeowners than the safety of the homes they were living in.

It’s now common for much of a hurricane’s death toll in America to come after the storm, sometimes in auto accidents in unsafe driving conditions, carbon monoxide poisonings involving generators improperly used indoors, and electrocutions by exposed power lines.

“If you’ve never used a chainsaw before, right now is not the time to learn,” Chapman-Henderson said. Survivors might be “exhausted and stressed out, and not using a generator correctly. We lose people that way as well because carbon monoxide doesn’t have a scent to it.”

Jean-Pierre Bardet, dean of the University of Miami’s college of engineering, said he was impressed with the communication from government officials about evacuating danger zones.

But with all the forecasts, all the satellite imaging, all the analyses, Bardet still wasn’t satisfied. He noted that the storm was initially projected to hit southeast Florida, not southwest Florida.

“It would be great in the future,” Bardet said, “if we had some more certainty.”

A day after Hurricane Irma made landfall near here in what forecasters warned would be one of the most destructive storms ever to hit Florida, the pretty little seaside town of Naples, near ground zero of the Category 3 storm’s approach, found itsel

Pearce reported from Los Angeles, Hennessy-Fiske from Houston and Halper from Naples, Fla.

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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