Weather Events

What causes the greatest number of deaths from a hurricane?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The answer to this question might be surprising, but it's not the high winds that cause the greatest number of deaths from a hurricane. Instead, 90 percent of hurricane- and cyclone-related deaths result from the storm surge, a wall of water that accompanies a hurricane. While most surges are 6 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) above sea level, the storm surge accompanying 2005's Hurricane Katrina, for example, was estimated to have been 28 feet (8.5 meters) above sea level [source: Knabb].

    A storm surge is a freakishly high rise of water above normal sea level -- a rise above the expected astronomical tides. They can be even more deadly than usual if they happen to coincide with the normal high tide. The flooding they cause can devastate a typical coastline area, washing away property and anything else in its path that's light enough and not moored.

    While wind isn't the overriding cause of hurricane deaths, it gives power to the thing that is. Storm surges occur when the high-speed, swirling winds of a hurricane push water into the coastline. They're very sensitive to even the smallest changes in the hurricane -- its intensity, speed, size, the angle it takes toward a coastline and the type of land featured on the coast. The shape of the continental shelf beneath the sea also impacts a storm surge. If the area where a storm surge forms has a shallow continental shelf, the surge could potentially be much larger than were the shelf beneath the sea very steep.

    Along with Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,500 people, some of the other significant storm surges include 2008's Hurricane Ike, with surges of about 15-20 feet (4.5-6 meters), causing nearly $25 billion in damages; Hurricane Opal in 1995, which had a massive storm tide of 24 feet (7 meters); and Hurricane Isabel in 2003, which killed 17 people and battered the low-lying Chesapeake Bay region with a surge that exceeded 8 feet  (2.4 meters) [source: National Hurricane Center].

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