Death by Hurricane: It's the Water That You Really Have to Watch Out For

Haitian officials are initially reporting that Hurricane Matthew has killed more than 400 people. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

As Hurricane Matthew took aim at the southeastern U.S. on Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott stood before news cameras and issued a stern warning in the most sober of terms:

"This storm," the governor said, "will kill you."

It wasn't hyperbole. It wasn't fearmongering in an attempt to get dug-in Floridians to flee the historic storm.

It was, and is, a simple fact. Hurricanes will kill you. In many, many ways.

The Threat of Matthew

Matthew was packing sustained winds of 140 mph (225 kph) Thursday night before it was downgraded to a Category 3. The winds still were gusting to more than 120 mph (193 kph) at points Friday morning.

"Winds will be a threat, and there will likely be a lot of structural damage," says Carl Parker, a hurricane specialist at The Weather Channel. "But the important thing to remember is, on average, winds cause about 5-10 percent of the fatalities. Storm surge causes 50 percent."

At one time, the storm surge — essentially the water pushed ashore by all that wind — was predicted to be up to 9 feet (2.7 meters). At other times, it was forecast to be at 11 feet (3.4 meters). That's 11 feet higher than the water level normally would be.

A point to remember: A cubic yard of salt water weighs more than 1,700 pounds (771 kilograms).

According to the National Weather Service, drowning from storm surge, which can travel several miles inland, is the leading cause of death related to U.S. hurricanes. "If you're looking at a 6- to 9-foot surge ... you're not going to get out of there. You're done," says Parker. "It's really important to remember that water has tremendous power, tremendous force. It can very easily destroy things."

The wind and the surging seas by themselves are deadly. But that's just the tip of what a hurricane can do.

"There are a lot of different threats," says Parker. "Rainfall flooding actually causes about a quarter of the fatalities. That can actually hit you from both ends. If you're looking at these inlets ... the rivers are filling up from all this heavy rainfall, the waters are trying to run out to the ocean, and at the same time water's coming into the ocean, so that magnifies that water-level rise in those areas."

Drowning from the rains that Parker describes, the ones that swell inlets and rivers, is the second-leading cause of death from hurricanes, according to the NWS. The rains, and the flooding they cause, can go on for days after the storm has passed.

The threats to life continue, too, in many different forms.

It's More Than Just Wind and Water

"The power lines ... people will die," Tim Tumulty, the mayor of Cocoa Beach, on the central Florida coast, told CNN on Friday morning. "I'm still seeing transformers blow out here. Yes, the major part of the storm has passed. But it's just not over yet."

According to the National Hurricane Center, 90 percent of U.S. deaths in hurricanes come from water. Other causes? The New York Times listed some after Hurricane Sandy ripped through in 2012:

  • A 23-year-old woman was killed when she went outside to take pictures of the devastation and stepped on a live power line.
  • A 28-year-old Staten Island man led his family to safety in the attic, but returned to the basement where he was likely electrocuted.
  • A 50-year-old woman in Rockaway Park, Queens, cut her arm while trying to shut off the gas during the storm and bled to death.
  • A 10-by-10 foot (3-by-3 meter) section of roof from a mobile home crashed through the windshield of a car in Kerhonkson, a northern New York suburb, killing a 69-year-old woman.
  • A 75-year-old man and his 73-year-old wife were found dead in Ulster County, north of New York, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator they used to power their home during the storm.

More than 100 people were killed in the U.S. in Hurricane Sandy, which caused more than $71 billion dollars' worth of damage, according to the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Matthew had already killed more than 400 people across the Caribbean as of early Friday morning, most of them in Haiti.

Tens of millions of people were evacuating coastal regions in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and up the East Coast.

Many, though, were staying.

"People tend to use their past experience, which is a terrible mistake, because every hurricane is different," Parker says. "This is a prime example. We really can't think of a case where a hurricane this strong came right up and along the Florida coast. Hurricane David did something similar in 1979, but it wasn't as strong.

The Biggest Threat

Maybe the most pressing threat to life, and certainly the most avoidable, is not from Mother Nature. It's some people's hardheaded insistence to stand in the path of a hurricane.

"It's a terrible idea to use your past experience to judge how much of a threat you're facing."

National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb warned those people Friday morning on a live-stream on Periscope: "That is a very, very big mistake you can make that can cost you your life."

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