New study reveals an unexpected, deadly risk hiding in recent hurricane seasons — and it’s only getting worse

Hurricanes are one of several extreme weather events that present a threat to human life, but the main risk from the natural phenomenon might be unexpected.

High winds are definitely a culprit of devastation, but it’s actually the impact of severe rainfall and flooding that poses the biggest danger, as new research from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) revealed.

What did the study find?

According to the study, as summarized by Yale Climate Connections, 57% of the deaths from tropical cyclones in the last 10 years were a result of freshwater flooding.

While storm surge — when high winds push seawater ashore — was responsible for nearly half of the deaths in these weather events between 1963 and 2012, it now only accounts for 11% of deaths.

Further, the study found that nine in 10 direct deaths in the last decade were because of water, with high surf and ocean rip currents adding to the dangers of freshwater flooding and storm surge.

Why is flooding leading to more fatalities?

According to the NHC, intense rainfall can lead to flash flooding, bringing a “rapid rise in water levels” that might catch inland residents off guard.

The organization also observed that flooding from rivers and streams that burst their banks can persist even after the storm has passed. With many people thinking they are out of danger when the bulk of the hurricane has moved on, they may not be expecting flood risks days after the event.

Coastal areas are still at the most risk of flooding caused by storm surge. The NHC said storm surge “can reach heights well over 20 feet and can span hundreds of miles of coastline,” necessitating prompt evacuation of residents from these areas.

How can people prepare for flooding?

The best way to prepare for flooding events is to listen to local warnings. For example, with Tropical Storm Hilary hitting Southern California in August, the National Weather Service put in place a flash flood warning. In these situations, evacuation is the immediate advice, but otherwise, getting to higher ground is extremely important.

Prevention measures are essential. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, a warming climate will increase the frequency and strength of hurricanes.

“Evaporation intensifies as temperatures rise, and so does the transfer of heat from the oceans to the air,” the EDF said. “As the storms travel across warm oceans, they pull in more water vapor and heat. That means stronger wind, heavier rainfall and more flooding when the storms hit land.”

Taking action to limit the overheating of our planet is essential. Reducing air pollution is one measure. Swapping your dirty fuel-powered car for an electric model will cut the rate of harmful gases expelled into the atmosphere — which act as a blanket around the Earth and lead to higher temperatures.

Cutting back on single-use plastics is also a small change that could make a huge difference. Research from the Center for International Environmental Law, as summarized by the Natural Resources Defense Council, showed plastic production leads to harmful pollution at every stage of its life cycle.

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