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Risk of death from U.S. natural disasters reported

  • 17 December 2008
  • Written by 
  • Published in Climate
U.S. geographers researched patterns of mortality (death) within the United States. High profile disasters such as Hurricane Katrina aren’t the deadliest. Overall, risk is highest for extreme cold and hot temperatures.


The December 17, 2008 article by Susan L. Cutter and Kevin A. Borden, both from the University of South Carolina (Columbia), appears in the International Journal of Health Geographics. It is entitled “Spatial patterns of natural hazards mortality in the United States.”

They state in the abstract to their paper, “Studies on natural hazard mortality are most often hazard-specific (e.g. floods, earthquakes, heat), event specific (e.g. Hurricane Katrina), or lack adequate temporal or geographic coverage. This makes it difficult to assess mortality from natural hazards in any systematic way.”

The Cutter-Borden team examined the patterns of U.S. natural disasters and their effect on human mortality (death) from the years 1970 to 2004

The December 17, 2008 New Scientist article “Death map USA: Natural disaster hotspots revealed” states that, “For all the attention garnered by catastrophic hurricanes such as Katrina, they aren't the most dangerous type of weather in America.”

The article contains maps that plot areas from lowest to highest risk of death from natural disasters in the United States.

Writer Ewen Callaway, of New Scientist, reports, “Overall, natural disasters account for less than 5% of natural hazard deaths across the US.”

Page two talks about differences in various regions of the United States.




The New Scientist article also states the people living in the South are more likely than are people in other parts of the United States to die from the effects of the weather.

Cutter and Borden found that extreme summer weather and cold winter weather are more dangerous than earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires.

Specifically, the researchers found that severe weather, both in summer (such as extreme hot temperatures) and winter (such as extreme cold) account for most of the deaths from natural disasters.

People in the Midwest are generally living in the safest area when it comes to the likelihood of death from natural disasters.

People in the South and the Western Plains (intermountain west) are at the greatest risk overall from dying as the result of such disasters.

They state, “The regions most prone to deaths from natural hazards are the South and intermountain west, but sub-regional county-level mortality patterns show more variability.”

In addition, people in large cities are safest from natural disasters than people in smaller cities and rural areas.

Page three provides statistics by the research team, along with conclusions from Cutter and Borden with respect to the use of these statistics.




The statistics by Cutter and Boren state that deaths from natural disasters occur primarily because of:

  • heat and drought 19.6% of the time
  • severe weather 18.8%
  • winter weather 18.1%
  • flooding 14.0%
  • tornado 11.6%
  • lightning 11.3%

Fewer deaths occur from these natural disaster conditions:

  • coastal 2.3%
  • hurricane and tropical storm 1.5%
  • geophysical 1.5%
  • mass movement 1.9%
  • wildfire 0.4%

They also found that patterns exist on a county-basis that shows higher risk of death. For instance, county blocks in the lower Mississippi Valley, upper Great Plains, and Mountain West showed higher mortality rates.

In addition, areas in west Texas and the Florida panhandle also showed higher than average death rates.

However, clusters of low mortality rates exist in the Midwest and the urbanized Northeast.

The researchers conclude, “There is no consistent source of hazard mortality data, yet improvements in existing databases can produce quality data that can be incorporated into spatial epidemiological studies as demonstrated in this paper.”

“It is important to view natural hazard mortality through a geographic lens so as to better inform the public living in such hazard prone areas, but more importantly to inform local emergency practitioners who must plan for and respond to disasters in their community.”

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