Hurricanes: The Definition, Risks, Impact and Prevention of a Natural Disaster

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Hurricanes: The Definition, Risks, Impact and Prevention of a Natural Disaster

Megan Davis, Bethany Hesselink, Kimberly Mcpike, and Ronda Mott

Ferris State University - Nursing 319


Among the various categories of natural disasters (geologic, atmospheric, other natural hazards), the hurricane has earned its reputation as an unrestrained, malignant and dreadful threat.  These truths, born out in both world and United States history, warrant greater public awareness of the phenomenon, formal acknowledgement of its increasing risk and lethal potential and a renewed interest in prediction, warning, mitigation and response strategies.

Hurricanes: The Definition, Risks, Impact and Prevention of a Natural Disaster

 Perhaps no other natural phenomenon matches the formidable raw power, unbridled destructive capability, magnitude of risk to life and property or threat to economic and social dislocation more than a hurricane of maximal intensity bearing down on a defenseless coastline and vulnerable population.  As the havoc wreaked by hurricane Katrina testifies, the hurricane is among the most meteorologically understood, yet uniquely unpredictable and ruinous categories of natural disasters due to its effects on natural ecosystems and man-made habitat (Veenema, 2013).  


Typically developing from a disorganized cluster of thunderstorms over the eastern part of a tropical ocean basin, hurricanes evolve from tropical storms in which wind speeds have reached at least 74 mile per hour (mph), typically have sustained winds of 160 mph, but can exceed 350 mph and extend in size, over 400 miles.  Hurricanes form in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Indian Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean (Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, 2009).  The dangers of the hurricane include torrential rains, high winds and storm surges.  According to Veenema (2013, p. 269) “a hurricane can last for more than two weeks over open water and can run a path across the entire length of the Eastern Seaboard,” when impacting the United States.  The hurricane season lasts from June 1 through November 30 for the northern hemisphere.  Hurricane strength is classified based on wind speed and anticipated hurricane effects using the updated 2010 Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.  Storms are categorized in severity from 1 through 5 where Categories 3, 4 and 5 are deemed significant storms (National Weather Service, 2013).  The 74 to 160 mile per hour winds of a hurricane can extend inland for hundreds of miles.  Significant storms spawn tornadoes, floods and flash floods generated by torrential rains, flooding of inland streams and rivers and soil and ground erosion triggering landslides with subsequent environmental damage and loss of life. Several factors, however, contribute to the devastation that these storms inflict.  A storm’s impact is as much a function of an affected populations’ communal behavior and organization, as it is the severity of the hurricane or any of its long-standing effects.  The trends that demonstrate increasing economic losses and social dislocation are subsequent to “1) increasing population densities, 2) the progressive movement of populations into disaster prone flood plains, 3) the construction of communities in vulnerable areas” (Veenema, 2013, p. 267).  According to Louisiana Homeland Security And Emergency Preparedness (2009) “from Texas to Maine, over 44 million people reside in coastal counties and barrier islands and weekends and holidays can increase this number from 10-100% with tourists.”  Other factors that directly impact life, property and the economic devastation include the increasing use and placement of valuable holdings, realty, private enterprise, complex infrastructure and wealth into hazard prone regions without the benefit of the best engineering and disaster mitigation technologies (Veenema, 2013, p. 267).  Finally, the constraints that infrastructure congestion places on mass evacuation and disaster preparation, despite adequate storm forecasting, further exacerbates injury and losses. For example, population studies verify that it takes longer to evacuate heavily populated areas today than it did 10 years ago.  In fact, according to Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (2009) “over 30 hours are required to safely evacuate the coastal cities of Galveston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Key West, Florida and Ocean City, Maryland,” despite adequate pre-landfall hurricane forecasting.

The August 2005 example of Katrina, perhaps forever changed our society’s definitions of mass calamity and view of the enormity of wreckage and deprivation that a hurricane can create.  According to The White House (2006) “the overall destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which was both a large and powerful hurricane as well as a catastrophic flood, vastly exceeded that of any other major disaster, such as the Chicago Fire of 1871, the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.”  Katrina reaffirmed the unpredictable impact that hurricanes can have, despite the Saffir-Simpson scale and twenty-first century meteorology. According to the The White House (2006) “Seventy-five hurricanes of Katrina’s strength at landfall at Category 3 have hit the mainland United States since 1851, roughly once every two years.  Yet Katrina was anything but a “normal” hurricane.”  First, Katrina outsized most every other recorded storm.  Hurricane Camille, a 1969 Category 5 storm, had top wind speeds that exceeded those of Katrina upon landfall.  Camille’s winds extended seventy-five miles from its center compared to Katrina’s extension some 103 miles from its center.  As a result, Katrina’s tumultuous storm surge affected a larger area than did Hurricane Camille’s, impacting nearly 93,000 square miles across 138 parishes and counties.

Further, Katrina completely reformatted two important historic statistical benchmarks in post-disaster evaluation.  First, even though a final accounting figure is unknown nine years later, recovery efforts continue and hurricane damage estimation is not a physical science, according to The White House (2006) “considering property damage alone, Hurricane Katrina is America’s first disaster natural or man-made to approach the $100 billion mark.”  Second, Katrina is the first natural disaster to negate an important previous historic trend among natural disasters in the United States.  According to The White House (2006), “for at least a century, America’s most severe natural disasters have become steadily less deadly and more destructive of property.”  Hurricane Katrina, by contrast not only damaged far more property than any previous natural disaster, but was also deadlier than any United States storm since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928.

Hurricane Risk

The risk and damage potential of hurricanes is increasing compared to other natural disasters.  This risk is quantifiable as a function of increasing storm strength characteristics; increasing storm frequency and duration and increasing vulnerability of the communities devastated at landfall.

Since the 1970s, the destructive potential of tropical storms in the North Atlantic has increased by about 50 percent.  This increase correlates with longer storm lifetimes and greater storm intensities with an increase of 0.9 to 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit in sea-surface temperatures in the main development area for tropical storms in the North Atlantic (National Wildlife Federation, 2008).  In addition, the heights of waves have increased by 20% since the late 1970’s resulting in tides that are higher than 10 feet and are likely to be present during strong storms along the eastern United States (U.S.) during hurricane season.  

The frequency of North Atlantic hurricanes have also increased over the last century from an average of 3.5 per year in the early 1900’s up to an average of 8.4 per year for 1995-2005 (National Wildlife Federation, 2008).  As oceans warm and glaciers melt, sea levels will continue to rise and create higher storm surges, which increases coastal flooding and subsequent storm damage along coasts.  The risk of flooding is increased with the associated heavy rains that can extend hundreds of miles inland (Ekwurzel, 2006).  Recent scientific studies indicate a connection between higher ocean temperatures and the destructive force of hurricanes, attributed in part to global warming.  Lastly, the rising population in coastal regions and commensurate concentration of sensitive infrastructure considerably heightens the risk of financial hardship, property damage and unfortunate fatalities due to these unpredictable tropical cyclones (Ekwurzel, 2006).

Hurricanes are among the most consistently lethal natural disasters in terms of all-cause mortality.  The deadliest tropical cyclone in world history is the Great Bhola Cyclone that caused approximately 500,000 deaths and struck in Bangladesh in 1970.  More recently, Cyclone Nargis caused catastrophic destruction and at least 138,000 fatalities after making landfall in Myanmar in 2008.  The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest hurricane to strike the U.S. and was responsible for over 6,000 lives.  Somewhere along the United States Gulf or Atlantic coast, an average of two major hurricanes make landfall every 3 years.  Since 1851, the year 2005 tied for the second most U.S. major hurricane strikes.  In the history of the U.S., Hurricane Katrina was the largest and costliest in terms of combined devastation, size of area impacted, loss of life, and number of people affected (University of Rhode Island, 2010).

Morbidity and Mortality

Morbidity and mortality often occurs from hurricanes because the population fails to evacuate or effectively shelter in place.  When living in hurricane-prone areas, a working knowledge of the community’s warning signals and systems, evacuation routes and emergency shelters is crucial for survival, injury avoidance and asset or property protection (Department of Health and Human Services Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013).  During any disaster, special needs populations are among the most vulnerable and deserve unusual consideration regarding evacuation and shelter.  Further, individual, household and municipal preparedness plans are vital for at-risk communities.  Each household should prioritize preparation of first aid kits, emergency food and water supplies and a communications plan and modality with the ability to sustain it during a power outage.  Household and neighborhood plans should be tailored to address the unique concerns of children, pets, pregnant women, the elderly, immobile and those who need special assistance (Veenema, 2013, p. 99).

A broad range of bodily insults, physical afflictions and illnesses accompany the onset, duration, aftermath and recovery phases of hurricanes.  At the onset and during hurricanes, lacerations, bone fractures, puncture wounds and falls from winds and flying debris can cause serious injury.  Blunt trauma and crush injuries plague victims who are unable to avoid windows, exterior doors and the basements of unstable structures and homes vulnerable to collapse. During the immediate aftermath phase of hurricanes, protective clothing, waterproof footwear and reinforced hazard gear can provide protection from migrating or floating debris and rubble, electrocution, toxic and waste exposure from disabled utilities and environmental hazards such as snake and animal attack, disease and insect infestation.

Hurricanes produce flooding and standing waters, which presents some of the largest challenges for communities in regards to morbidity and mortality after the storm.  With flash flooding being unpredictable and swift in development, roadways as community lifelines are immediately rendered impassable, deceptively deep and more risk-prone than they appear.  In addition to thwarting formal rescue and post-storm evacuation efforts, driving by individuals is particularly hazardous.  During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, 24 of the 52 deaths were attributed to motorists attempting to navigate flooded roads (N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010).  Further, the often invisible risks of standing water and static flooding include fast undersurface currents, sudden depth changes and drop-offs and terrain changes that erode familiar landmarks, which are especially dangerous for children, the elderly and others trying to move about (N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010).  Drowning is an avoidable, but all too common form of demise after hurricanes, thus, use of caution with attempts at relocation and complying with the orders and assistance of emergency personnel is important.  Until such aid is available, employing lifesaving precautions, such as the use of lifejackets, simple monitoring of water levels changes in the immediate vicinity and maintaining escape routes from homes and shelters, while anticipating the need for extra time with children and the infirmed, can make the difference in surviving or not.

The recovery and cleanup phases of hurricanes pose their own unique risks.  The disruption and dislocation of wildlife (e.g. native species, snakes, insects, domestic animals from zoos and pets) create the increased risk of foreseeable human-animal contact which compounds the danger of an already fractured, post-storm habitat.  Animals displaced from customary settings and handlers may become frightened, aggressive, unpredictable and emboldened in the same way as humans whose survival is threatened following a massive environment shift after a storm.  Caution and avoidance should be standard procedure when dealing with upset and unfamiliar domestic and wild animals.  Mosquitoes, bees and other insect varieties that were eco-friendly or contained prior to a storm, now become quickly replicating pests that have had typical habitats disrupted in the post-storm setting.  Not only do these kinds pose increased nuisance risks for stranded human populations, but now become community based vectors for uncontrolled disease spread among marooned survivors and animals.  Protection and sanitation where possible of living environments, waste control and repellant application are key strategies in reducing insect attraction and exposure.  Lastly, as a consequence of ocean storm surge and the mixing of overflow from inland lake and major tributaries, a peculiar feature of hurricane sequelae is the translocation of marine life, snakes and amphibians into the previous “dry” human habitat after the storm.  With rising flood water, venomous snakes, stinging marine life (jellyfish, etc.) and predators may survive in flood waters that would not be their normal habitat (N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010).  

On a different front, powerful hurricane winds, power loss from disrupted utilities, damage to storage facilities and factories and heavy equipment failures (electricity, natural gas, water purification, chemical reservoirs, sewage and waste removal) portend yet another category of post-storm risk to survivors and rescue personnel.  Downed live power lines, electrocutions, fires, toxic exposure and poisonous or chemical residue often threaten unsuspecting stranded masses before being identified and quarantined by authorities.  Personal vigilance, avoidance and reporting of such dangers by the lay public may play a role in limiting fatalities until addressed by the proper crisis management teams, business and utility companies and municipal authorities (N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010).

Finally, insults to hospitals and health facility supply chains, computer and communications capabilities, diagnostic and therapeutic technologies and patient housing and transport are expected in the wake of hurricanes.  Following Katrina, newly formulated hospital and institutional emergency preparedness plans and hierarchies that anticipate patient safety and evacuation priorities, power failure, replacement and maintenance of medical equipment,  meals-readily-eaten (MRE’s) and emergency staffing issues have been devised and are now in place in most vulnerable communities.  Local medical preparedness support often now stands ready to jointly respond and interface with municipal, state and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorities, private entities and interstate partners to sustain the medical disaster response beyond the community’s capability (The White House, 2006).  Legislative proposals such as the Uniform Emergency Volunteer Health Practitioners Act (UEVHPA) of 2007 and the adoption of state based laws to suspend bureaucratic obstructions that hinder response efforts and resources have added to response capacity (The Center for Law and The Public's Health, 2008). Despite these encouraging preparedness initiatives, the risks of impact to the health-care sector and medical response has not been completely erased due to the unpredictable, post-hurricane chaos that befalls the affected community.

According to Veenema (2013, p. 6) the five basic phases of a disaster management program include preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery and evaluation.  Given the aforementioned definitions, damage capabilities, ecosystem and habitat disruption, property, business, economic and financial loss and mortality, a renewed interest and awareness of hurricane prevention and mitigation is warranted.


Prevention of fatalities and property loss due to hurricanes, at its core, is about preparedness. (2013) a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) outlines pre-impact hurricane prevention steps which include:  1) having an individual or household emergency kit and communication plan established, 2) knowledge and assessment of the home and surrounding vicinity’s physical vulnerabilities to the ravages of hurricane impact (i.e. flood plain, home or shelter design, elevation, etc.).  If forced to shelter in place during a hurricane, concurrent steps include monitoring authoritative information sources for updates via battery operated radio or TV, fortifying and insulating the shelter or home windows and doors, securing movable objects and suspending utilities such as natural gas and water. Post-hurricane steps mainly include continuous monitoring via radio regarding specific risks and for flooding (FEMA, 2013).


           According to (Veenema, 2013, p. 6) mitigation is defined as the steps taken to decrease the devastation from disasters by reducing the effect on human and economic infrastructures. Effective communication, planning, preparedness, risk assessment are key aspects of mitigation (Veenema, 2013).

           According to Cigler (2006), FEMA is concerned with general, broad-based risk assessment.  Their mitigation efforts usually involve mapping flood-prone areas, educating communities, relocating homes and communities and setting strict building codes for structural reinforcements (p. 5).  Individuals and communities, however, should be aware of their surroundings and understand the peculiarities of a hurricane prone area.  Community measures should mandate the strengthening of homes and vital structures within the community (i.e. banks, hospitals, power plants, etc.) and re-emphasize community knowledge and information about hurricanes and early warning systems.  Communities should require larger scale survey of the strengths, weaknesses, condition and durability of vital infrastructure such as bridges, dams, trees, land mass, retaining walls, levies and major roads.  Any deficiencies demand pre-storm correction and certification according to municipal and state building and storm reinforcement codes.  Further, individuals and communities should invest in pre-storm itemization of property and assets in order to streamline post-hurricane insurance claims.  Pre-impact research and preparations such as these may do much to reduce the anxiety for residents in storm-prone areas (FEMA, 2013).

           The most devastating feature of a hurricane is the strong winds and rains produced. Minimizing the damage created by a hurricane is the primary focus of mitigation efforts (Veenema, 2013).  According to Veenema (2013), flooding is the main product of a hurricane causing structural damage to buildings and homes (p. 268).  Therefore, a major concern for contractors is how to improve the structural design of a building to keep water out and prevent them from floating away when submerged (Barista, 2006, p. 50).

           Barista (2006, p. 51) mentions six flood-proof barrier options to implement to prevent flooding and water damage.  For example, lift-out barriers are inexpensive but require physical labor and time.  Stop logs are like Lincoln Logs and are similar to lift-out barriers in that they require time and physical labor to assemble.  Side-hinged gates are units that are not removable; they swing closed to prevent water from entering the ground floor of a building.  They are permanent, do not require assembly, but need room to swing.  Side-hinged flood doors are set up quickly and very effective in preventing the oncoming water from entering a building.  Sliding flood barriers are like pocket doors hidden until needed, take seconds to set up, but are expensive.  Bottom-hinged floodgates are expensive, are hidden in the ground until needed and rise up preventing water from entering the structure.

           Finally, communication response, command and control and government/agency accountability is critical to a robust and effective disaster reaction and mitigation.  According to Cigler (2006, p. 5), communication between governments, agencies, private entities and humanitarian organizations was lacking during hurricane Katrina.  State and national governments feuded over resource requests, timing, delivery and destination.  Infighting strained the effective use of available and trained resources such as the National Guard and military and thwarted coordination efforts between well-intentioned agencies.  These post-Katrina insights have set the stage for improvement in local, state and national government communication and interactions for future disaster response.  Communication and coordination may be facilitated by increased understanding by government departments and agencies of the other’s specific functions, avoidance of redundancies in administrative purview, streamlining of personnel and accountability hierarchy and timely dissemination of updates regarding specific regulations and changes.  Cigler (2006) mentions, “a necessary precondition of better mitigation and more effective response and recovery is to sort out legal authorities among and between various levels of governments” (p. 6).


Hurricanes may be nature’s most menacing and consequential of natural disasters. Compared to wild fires, earthquakes, winter blizzards and the like, no other natural disaster phenomenon has been responsible for greater cumulative human toll, physical disruption and financial casualty in United States history than hurricanes (The White House, 2006).  The hurricane’s unrivaled destructive force, historic track record of devastation and death, coupled with its apparent increasing frequency and risk render it a serious economic and national security threat.  Renewed commitments to individual, community and national educational campaigns; community, business and health care sector preparatory action, combined with twenty-first century early forewarning technologies may be the best formula for reducing future risk.  Vital lessons learned and strategies to be disseminated are as simple as the individual household emergency kit, to as comprehensive as state and national legislation and agency reorganization. Each plays a pivotal role in lives saved and habitat preserved.  The ability to effectively anticipate, respond to, survive and recover from the impact of a disaster like the hurricane is still a work in progress.


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