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Breakdown: Why hurricanes can bring a threat of carbon monoxide

Updated: Jun. 21, 2021 at 9:31 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Hurricane season is among us and with it the usual dangers: intense winds, storm surge, and heavy rain. But there are some hidden dangers you may not know about.

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 the National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham says it’s becoming clear that forecasters and emergency managers need to pay more attention to threats after the storm.

After a record number of storms in 2020, NOAA has forecasted another above-normal hurricane season with 13 to 20 named storms.

There were 30 named storms in 2020, the most ever. Twelve of those storms made landfall in the continental U.S., another record. The most powerful was Hurricane Laura that produced a 17-foot storm surge, the highest ever recorded in Louisiana. Due to its devastating impacts, the name “Laura” has been retired from use for future storms.

National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham believes accurate forecasting and urgent, clear messaging helped minimize fatalities.

“If you remember the words that we used, ‘unsurvivable,’ we don’t take that lightly. And in the end, [there was] not a single storm surge fatality in Hurricane Laura,” Graham said.

Although there were no deaths from storm surge, 28 people died from Laura, and almost all of them once the hurricane passed. The storm wrecked the electrical grid, including taking out the National Weather Radar site in Lake Charles, LA and a tower at a local tv station. Communities were left without power for weeks. As a result, 14 people died by carbon monoxide poisoning from unsafe use of emergency generators.

“There’s a perception that, you know, the storm has passed me and I’m safe now, and it’s not the case,” said NHC Director Ken Graham.

Generators provide life-saving power in emergency situations, but also pose a deadly threat if used incorrectly.

Most generator-related fatalities are caused by carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that can build up especially quickly in enclosed spaces. At certain levels, just five minutes of exposure is enough to be fatal.

More people have died from unsafe use of generators after hurricanes than storm surge since 2017, according to NHC Director Graham.

He said weather forecasters and emergency managers have done a good job making people aware of the dangers of storm surge, which has historically been the leading killer from hurricanes.

“We’ve had since 2017, 14 hurricane landfalls. Five were major hurricanes. And we’ve had seven storm surge fatalities,” Graham says. “So in the last four years, we’ve lost more people to carbon monoxide poisoning after the storm than we have to storm surge.”

At least 39 people have died after hurricanes from carbon monoxide poisoning since 2017.

While carbon monoxide can’t be smelled or seen, it can be detected. it’s important to get carbon monoxide detectors.

Never run your generator indoors -- not even in your garage or a doorway.

Here are some tips from the American Red Cross when operating a portable generator at home:

  • Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace or any partially enclosed area.
  • Keep these devices outdoors, away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come indoors.
  • Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO buildup in the home. Although CO can’t be seen or smelled, it can rapidly lead to full incapacitation and death. Even if you cannot smell exhaust fumes, you may still be exposed to CO. If you start to feel sick, dizzy, or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air RIGHT AWAY - DO NOT DELAY.
  • Install CO alarms in central locations on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas to provide early warning of accumulating carbon monoxide.
  • Test the batteries frequently and replace when needed.
  • If the carbon monoxide alarm sounds, move quickly to a fresh air location outdoors or by an open window or door.

Call for help from the fresh air location and remain there until emergency personnel arrive to assist you.

As hurricane forecasting has improved, people who live near the coasts now get earlier and more accurate information about how to prepare safely, which has helped reduce the number of deaths from direct causes like flooding and high winds, but the National Hurricane Center is working through its messaging and outreach to focus attention on generator safety to reduce deaths after a hurricane.

Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, conducted several years ago and found indirect causes were responsible for almost half of hurricane deaths.

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