Hurricanes Impact Public Health for Months After Storm

Hurricane along the coast.

Warren Faidley / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The increased mortality caused by weather events such as tropical storms and cyclones appears to be larger than previously believed.
  • After a storm, infectious and parasitic diseases, cardiovascular disease, and neuropsychiatric conditions can all lead to more deaths.
  • Climate change is causing stronger and more frequent cyclones.

Even up to several weeks after the rain stops and the winds die down, hurricanes and tropical storms lead to many deaths in the United States. As climate change increases the strength and frequency of these severe storms, experts are stressing that the need to be prepared is only growing.

A new study found that hurricanes and tropical storms are associated with an increase of up to 33.4% in death rates in the months after the weather event. Driving this uptick are injuries, infectious and parasitic diseases, cardiovascular disease, and neuropsychiatric disorders. And the burden of these diseases is greatest on economically disadvantaged communities that are in the storms’ path.

For the study, researchers looked at data from 33.6 million death records in the United States from 1988 to 2018. The data came from 1,206 counties in the country that had experienced a median of two days of weather activity from tropical cyclones—in the form of tropical storms or hurricanes—during those years. The researchers used a statistical model that compared deaths in the weeks after a tropical storm or hurricane to similar periods in years when there were no storms. The study was published in JAMA.

Is It a Cyclone or Hurricane?

A cyclone is a storm or system of spiraling winds that rotate around an area of low atmospheric pressure. The winds rotate counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. A cyclone that develops in the North Atlantic or the eastern North Pacific is called a hurricane.

The difference between a tropical storm and a hurricane is a matter of wind speed. A tropical storm is a cyclone that has maximum sustained winds of between 39 and 73 miles per hour or less. A hurricane has sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher.

The study design revealed an association between the time of a cyclone and changes in certain patterns of death rates, Robbie Parks, PhD, lead study author and post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told Verywell. Recent hurricane seasons in the United States have had stronger, more active storms that lasted longer and traveled further inland from where they first made landfall, he noted.

“The climate science is clearer and clearer that a cyclone will be stronger on average and make peak wind closer to land,” Parks said. “But in terms of what that association will be with public health outcomes, such as death and hospitalization, it really is a function of future resilience.”

Communities will need better preparations in advance of the storm, “but also capacity to tolerate a cyclone, both during and then the recovery period afterward. That recovery period could be weeks, days, and decades," he added.

The Health Impacts of the Storm

Deaths after a tropical storm or hurricane may be undercounted in the immediate aftermath, James Shultz, PhD, associate professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and lead author on an editorial in JAMA that commented on the study, told Verywell.

The study led by Parks shows that there is an incremental increase in deaths due to various causes that occur even far inland, he said.

“Hurricanes don’t stop at the coast,” Shultz said. “The storm systems go inland.” Tropical storms bring high winds and heavy rain that cause flooding and other dangerous situations. Hurricane Sandy dumped up to three feet of snow in the Appalachian Mountains after it went inland, he pointed out.

Deaths due to injuries generally occur within a day or so of a tropical storm or hurricane. But deaths due to infectious or parasitic diseases may occur some time after the storm and may be due to damage to water and sewage systems or even to people being moved into crowded shelters or temporary housing, Parks said.

Although Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 might be examples of just how devastating these storms can be, the data collected in this study included many storms that were much less intense, Parks noted.

“Maybe we should focus on cyclones that don’t necessarily grab the headlines,” Parks added.

The analysis calculated the number of additional deaths that may have been due to a storm. Each additional day of cyclone activity per month was associated with an increased death rate in the month following the storm. The largest increase in deaths was related to injuries, with an increase of 33.4% in the month in which a hurricane occurred and a 3.4% increase in the month afterward.

Deaths due to infectious or parasitic diseases peaked one to two months after the storm, Parks said.

Researchers have documented the health impacts of hurricanes for years. Typically, injuries following the storm are most well documented. But research shows that chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and mental disorders, continue to occur for years following the hurricane’s impact.

Behind some of these health issues are troubles accessing medications after the storm, not having access to proper care and medical equipment, and environmental factors like carbon monoxide poisoning risk from generators.

Preparing for the Storm

Preparedness in advance of a storm and resilience afterward are equity issues, Parks pointed out. Low-income communities might not be able to evacuate rapidly in advance of a storm or have the ability to cope with widespread damage afterward, he said.

These communities may have to cope with water and sanitation systems that are damaged for longer periods of time. The inclusion of the effects of economic vulnerability on the outcome of cyclones was an important part of the study, Shultz noted.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides some tips for staying safe and preventing injuries or illnesses after a tropical storm, including:

  • Stay out of floodwater
  • Never use a wet electrical device
  • If the power is out, use flashlights instead of candles
  • Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Be careful near damaged buildings
  • Stay away from power lines
  • Protect yourself from animals and pests
  • Drink safe water and eat safe food
  • Wash your hands
  • Take care of any wounds or injuries to prevent infection
  • Clean up your home safely
  • Tale care of your emotional health

What This Means For You

If you live in an area impacted by hurricanes and tropical storms, it’s extremely important to take safety precautions before and after a storm arrives. Before a storm is set to hit, make sure you have any necessary medications handy and stock up on safe drinking water and food. After the storm, make sure you tend to any wounds or injuries and remain in a safe place away from flooding.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Parks RM, Benavides J, Anderson GB, et al. Association of tropical cyclones with county-level mortality in the US. JAMA. 2022;327(10):946–955. doi:10.1001/jama.2022.1682

  2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hurricanes.

  3. Waddell SL, Jayaweera DT, Mirsaeidi M, Beier JC, Kumar N. Perspectives on the health effects of hurricanes: a review and challengesInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(5):2756. doi:10.3390/ijerph18052756

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staying safe after a hurricane or other tropical storm.

By Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette has over 30 years' experience writing about health and medicine. She is the former managing editor of Drug Topics magazine.