Tallying the Dead: Why a Storm Death in One State Might Not Count in Another

Inconsistencies in classifying deaths have made it difficult to compare the magnitude of different disasters.

Comments: 23

  1. Trump had no idea of the extent of the damage in Puerto Rico when he went down to pass out paper towel rolls. He tried to pin the PR governor as to how many fatalities and then wrote that island of the USA off as any serious problem.
    In North Carolina, once he was sure that one of his golf properties was okay he pretty much considered that area of the country fixed. Now before the hurricane had even stopped he was off playing his role as candidate in chief. "Nice job, Trumpie, you make W's leadership on Katrina look masterful.

  2. Natural disasters have tragic consequences. Deaths due to drowning, falling objects, heroism of first responders, and other directly observable causes, including severe injuries leading to subsequent death, can usually be documented clearly. If the network of indirect deaths, due to power blackouts and effects on ailing and terminally ill patients and others are counted, things could spiral out of control. Especially where disbursement of federal monies is at stake. Comparisons of death rates in the disaster year compared to previous ones, for example, introduces statistical errors and room for manipulation, as well as the high probability of creating expensive new bureaucracies which will then make their living making rules for the hazy ambiguities associated with natural disasters.

  3. @anwesend

    Which is why all states must be required to follow the same standards. It can be done. For example, in criminal law, if a shooting victim dies years later from complications due to the original gunshot, the person who was convicted of the shooting can then be charged with murder.

  4. Like everything else in this country, I can see this becoming a partisan war. One side will want to suppress the death counts, especially indirectly related, so they can point out "oh look! We only had 4 deaths from this latest disaster! Look how great I handled it!" While the other side may want to inflate the death counts to in order to stress the importance of dealing with climate change. Citizens will want the deaths of their loved ones to be attributed to disasters, if applicable, in the hopes of receiving federal help to cover the outrageously expensive funeral costs. I can foresee months long arguments and debates over minute details in Congress.

    In the meantime, medical examiners and other physicians will be trying to figure out exactly what qualifies and how far into the future should they attribute the storm. Six months? A year?

  5. This debate, like just about anything today, revolves around politics. In this case, it's an campaign by the mainstream press to pin the blame for just about anything on Donald Trump. This particular article is just spinoff from the politically manufactured controversy about deaths caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

    In Puerto Rico, the press and a compliant Democratic government on that island, decided for the first time in history to blindly attribute to the hurricane any deaths above the average number for a six month period after the storm. Presto, Trump is to blame.

    But did the press, or the Democrats, ever make any attempt in 2013 Superstorm Sandy to track the number of additional deaths beyond direct deaths in the storm, and lay those deaths on Barack Obama's doorstep? Of course not, even though hundreds of people certainly died when health, nursing home and hospital services were disrupted catastrophically. Here, for instance, is left-wing CNN reporting on Superstorm Sandy, and of course, including only direct deaths in its toll, because, well, using the same methodology they later used in Puerto Rico would have looked for the Obama administration.


    Again, it's all politics.

  6. @Chuck French

    Perhaps that deaths attributed to Sandy were not counted the same way because after Maria, a group of scientists/epidemiologist started looking at natural disasters differently. In Puerto Rico people could't drive to a safe place or travel to a working hospital - there weren't any available anywhere on the island. There were accounts of people dying due to the lack of medical facilities.

    These storm events are not going to get any less frequent or less intense. It isn't politics, it's a way to better disaster planning; a more rational and inclusive look at the true impacts of so called "natural" disasters.

  7. With all due respect, none of it should be about politics.

    It should be about getting good scientific evidence about the direct and indirect effects of natural disasters on life, property and the economy.

    We can't have our leaders, regardless of their political persuasion sticking their collective heads in the sand, and saying "It's not my fault!"

    What we need is good hard statistical data to support our leaders in making good decisions, and strategic investments for the future, and then taking responsibility, regardless of the outcome.

  8. I believe this caption, "Who Is Counted in Storm Deaths? It Varies" is in error for it is the "why" and the "how" the person died that matters most to officials when counting potential storm related deaths. The "who" matters most to the loved ones, family members, friends and possible pets of the deceased. Government officials only sees statistics and numbers where others see and feel the sad and unexpected passing of a dear life.

    Apologies for being a stickler here, but I thought the distinction needed to be pointed out.

  9. @Marge Keller - How and why, yes the "ones on camera" being hit by a falling tree, are counted. All else are at the administrations discretion.

  10. Suppressing death counts is a bipartisan trend. Let no one delude themselves into thinking otherwise.

    Just take a peek at our military rules of engagement.

  11. Not to come across as overly numerical but reporting hurricane deaths is a problem easily solved. You have death certificates. You have storm dates. Regardless of what's marked on the death certificate, you can develop a reasonably comparable estimate for all storms with this information alone. You simply use statistics.

    If you wanted to get overly sophisticated you'd account for population density, tree canopy height, building codes, and so many other things. To keep things simple though, you'd simply pick baseline indicators for normalcy. A working power grid is obviously one. Sewage would be another.

    You then compare your baseline deaths before the storm to those after the storm. How many more deaths than normal are occurring after the storm hit? The variance is your comparable metric. You don't need an absolute body count. You can measure the impact of a storm and the effectiveness of the response with dated death certificates alone. You'd get a more accurate picture as a result.

  12. We all know that thousand of deaths in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico & elsewhere resulted directly from the titanic storms that hit those areas, but simply weren't counted as storm deaths.

    It doesn't take an expert to know that if the water supply becomes contaminated from storm flooding, and then people die from cholera or consumption of toxic water, those deaths are storm related. This is true even weeks after the storm subsides.

    If the storm wipes out the power, diabetics who can't refrigerate their insulin, and die from diabetes are not counted, even though their deaths are clearly storm related.

    If the elderly are exposed to increased stress and pass. And those who are chronically ill and need special treatment like dialysis, chemotherapy or radiation can't access that treatment because of road or facility closures, and die because of inadequate medical care those are storm related deaths.

    The politicization of science is wrong, it leads to faulty data, which in turn leads to bad decision making. In places like Bangladesh Nepal & Indonesia, the governments have no clue how many die in natural disasters. The USA must do better than third world nations in counting deaths and making sound decisions to mitigate the danger in the future.

    I will never forget President Bush, in the aftermath of Katrina telling the Director of FEMA, "Helluva Job, Brownie". Thousands died then, thousands are dying now, and our leaders just don't seem to care.

  13. “At least you got a nice boat out of the deal” -Trump

  14. This should be a no-brainer. Just look at the facts. Whether you die from a tree falling on your head, or because you didn't have access to life saving medicine is the same. The issue of how we count deaths can easily be traced to back to money, the only thing Trump cares about.

  15. "Brown" people don't count; citizens or not. That has been documented.

  16. This is the country’s worse storm and two people died? And in Puerto Rico 3,000 ? Trump questioned that too and he may be correct.

  17. @Brian Kenney The PR death toll was a joke!
    Using statistics to say x number of people died is completely ridiculous.

    If you can't give us the names to put on a memorial, then you can't say they died from the hurricane.

  18. Essentially what you are saying is that Trump’s critique of your statistical approach on Puerto Rico was correct. You can’t have it both ways. He pointed out this logical fallacy and was of course ridiculed for doing so, because he is Trump, orange demon.

  19. It's terrible to think there were people just innocently going about their business, and they were to die in this miserable hurricane.

    How could our legislators and heartless, irresponsible president allow us to fail in our mission, wherein we should be leading the global effort to avert looming disaster and save lives? Their atavistic belief that warming is just normal climate variation is deeply dismaying.

  20. Under a Democratic regime, the media counts only those fatalities directly related to the hurricane (i.e. the tree fell on his/her head). Under a Republican regime, the media pushes a statistical analysis of dubious accuracy which claims that if on average 5 ten people die of the flu but instead 10 flu-related deaths are recorded, then those five are added to the fatality list.

  21. If doctors are saying that some deaths might be attributed to the stress of reacting to these storms then I believe it is fair to say that we have a conceptual problem here. Storm deaths is a highly politicized thing. States want to minimize numbers to make their leaders look good. The media loves to build up death counts to garner viewers. Activists love to use deaths for various reasons. What gets lost in all this is the sheer randomness of everything. When a storm takes an unexpected turn, or when it stalls and floods everything deaths happen. Infrastructure and general wealth have the biggest impact. Of course death tolls in Puerto Rico were higher. They have more poverty. It's the same reason floods in Bangladesh kill so many people. Likewise, property value damage is always higher in the US because we have way more property value. Our media does a horrible job contextualizing all this. For them, the higher the numbers the bigger the story. Period. Trump was right to point out how politicized the numbers were. Even this paper is now conceding that the numbers vary depending on how you set up your system for counting them. Activists conveniently forget all this because subtleties distract people from hearing their message.

    Two people died so far in this hurricane. Meanwhile, does anyone know how many people may have died as a result of the recent snowfalls in the upper midwest? Of course you don't know. The media doesn't care.

  22. Evacuation, prompted by the weather emergency may have saved the lives of people who were quietly dying for lack of medical or any other attention.

  23. Partisan? Only from a safe distance. An irresistible opportunity to rail at liberals and the media.

    But a public demand for accurate data would save lives and families by helping emergency managers make better local plans. Both before the storms and after. We could coordinate among local expertise and talent —widen that net —to repair minds and spirits, as well as infrastructure.

    We could do a LOT better for our disabled, mentally vulnerable, and elderly with the resources we already have, if we could just focus on the what the article is saying.