Energy & Environment

Hurricanes linked to 33 percent surge in death rates after storms

(MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images)

Hurricanes and other tropical cyclones that have pummeled U.S. populations in recent decades were linked to up to 33 percent higher death rates from related illnesses in the months following the storms, a new study has found.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, sought to quantify the mortality risks that accompany these storms — information that has been otherwise unavailable, despite the devastation wrought by such events, according to the authors.

Combing through three decades of death records, the researchers homed in on the hidden climate-driven costs of hurricanes: the fatalities that resulted from related injuries, infectious and parasitic diseases, respiratory ailments, cardiovascular issues and neuropsychiatric disorders. 

“Recent tropical cyclone seasons — which have yielded stronger, more active, and longer-lasting tropical cyclones than previously recorded — indicate that tropical cyclones will remain an important public health concern,” lead author Robbie Parks, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement.

Parks and his colleagues said they collected 33.5 million U.S. death records from 1988 to 2018, which they analyzed using a statistical model to calculate how death rates changed after tropical cyclones and hurricanes. The authors then compared the outcomes of these events to equivalent periods in other years — defining hurricanes as “a subset of the strongest tropical cyclones.”

Ultimately, they identified the biggest increase in injury-related mortality rates, 33.4 percent, within the same month that a hurricane occurred. Looking at the broader category of cyclones, they saw the greatest surge in injury-related death rates, 3.7 percent, one month after the event.

As far as infectious and parasitic disease were concerned, the scientists saw the greatest increases in related death rates two months after hurricanes, 11.4 percent, and one month after cyclones, 1.8 percent.

Increases in respiratory disease death rates peaked one month after hurricanes and one month after cyclones, according to the study. Surges in cardiovascular disease death rates peaked during the month of the hurricane occurred and one month after cyclones.

As far as increases in neuropsychiatric death rates were concerned, these peaked within the month of a hurricane, 9.9 percent, and one month after cyclones in general, 1.2 percent.

Women appeared to be much more at risk of increases in mortality rates related to injuries they incurred due to tropical cyclone events. Female injury death rate increases climbed to 46.5 percent, in comparison to 27.6 percent for males in the month of a hurricane, the study found.

When sorting people by age, the scientists found that increases in death rates were higher for those aged 65 years or older in the month following a cyclone, 6.4 percent, while younger individuals experienced a 2.7 percent increase during that time. 

With little knowledge available about health impacts that linger in the aftermath of cyclones, the scientists aimed to help improve “resilience to climate-related disasters across the days, weeks, months, and years after they wreak destruction,” according to co-author Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, an assistant professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. 

Parks, meanwhile, recognized the fact that such storms most frequently impact Eastern and Southeastern coastal regions, stressing that “an outsized proportion of low-income and historically-disadvantaged communities in the United States reside in tropical cyclone-affected areas.” 

“Understanding the public health consequences of climate-related disasters such as hurricanes and other tropical cyclones is an essential component of environmental justice,” Parks added.

Tags Atlantic hurricanes

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