A New Hurricane Season Brings A New Threat: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning More people have died from unsafe use of generators after hurricanes than storm surge since 2017. The National Hurricane Center wants to focus attention on generator safety.

A New Hurricane Season Brings A New Threat: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

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The arrival of a new Atlantic hurricane season today is an occasion for millions of Americans to review their plans. How secure is your house? Do you know the evacuation routes? The National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency would also like you to be ready for the dangers that may come after the storm. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The new head of FEMA, Deanne Criswell, was in Miami recently to tour the National Hurricane Center and to deliver a message to the public.


DEANNE CRISWELL: ...Last year was a record season. We don't know what this season's going to be, but it just takes one storm.

ALLEN: Twelve named storms made landfall in the continental U.S. last year - again, a new record. The most powerful, Hurricane Laura, produced a 17-foot storm surge, the highest ever recorded in Louisiana. National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham believes accurate forecasting and urgent, clear messaging helped minimize fatalities.

KEN GRAHAM: And if you remember the words that we used, unsurvivable - we don't take that lightly. And in the end, not a single storm surge fatality in Hurricane Laura.

ALLEN: Although there were no deaths from storm surge, 28 people died from Laura, almost all of them once the hurricane passed. The storm wrecked the electrical grid in southwest Louisiana, leaving communities without power for weeks. Fourteen of the deaths were from carbon monoxide poisoning from unsafe use of emergency generators. At a news conference the day after the storm, Lake Charles Police Chief Shawn Caldwell said five deaths occurred in a single household. And he had a message for anyone using a generator.


SHAWN CALDWELL: Guys, keep it away from your home. Don't put it anywhere near a covered awning, a porch, a garage. Chain it to a tree if there's one left out in the yard. But don't let a generator cost your life.

ALLEN: For years now, forecasters have warned people that flooding from hurricanes poses the greatest danger to coastal residents, accounting for 90% of the deaths. Storm surge remains the greatest threat to lives and property in a hurricane. But NHC director Graham says it's becoming clear that forecasters and emergency managers need to pay more attention to threats after the storm, including improper use of generators.

GRAHAM: We've had, since 2017, 14 hurricane landfalls - five were major hurricanes. And we've had seven storm surge fatalities. So in the last four years, we've lost more people to carbon monoxide poisoning after the storm than we have storm surge.

ALLEN: At least 39 people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning related to generators since 2017. As hurricane forecasting has improved, people who live near the coasts now get earlier and more accurate information about how to prepare safely. That's helped reduce the number of deaths from direct causes, like flooding and high winds.

The deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, Ed Rappaport, says as a result, the percentage of people who die from indirect causes - like heart attacks, vehicle accidents, electrocution and carbon monoxide - has risen. In a study he conducted several years ago, he found indirect causes were responsible for almost half of hurricane deaths. In some storms, like Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Rappaport says the percentage is much higher. The death toll there is still a matter of dispute, but it's believed to be in the range of 3,000 dead.

ED RAPPAPORT: It appears that most of the deaths are going to be indirect - that is, there were few from storm surge. But most of the deaths appear to be those associated with the aftermath of the storm, the recovery period, the long times without power.

ALLEN: Rappaport says the National Hurricane Center is working through its messaging and outreach to focus attention on generator safety to reduce deaths after a hurricane. The problem is that few people pay attention to Hurricane Center warnings after a storm has passed. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has its own generator safety campaign. The federal agency says anyone using a generator should have carbon monoxide alarms with battery backup on every level of the home. But in a study, the commission found that in the vast majority of homes with carbon monoxide fatalities, alarms weren't present, and in homes where there were alarms, researchers say in most cases they didn't sound because the batteries weren't working.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.


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