Published July 24, 2013
So far this summer, the nation has experienced an array of severe weather. From wildfires and lightning storms in the West and extreme heat in the Northeast to extensive flooding in the South and Central regions, the United States has already been clobbered by some of the summer's worst. However, three weather phenomena prove to be the worst of the worst, causing the most fatalities every year: heat, flooding and lightning.
Easily claiming hundreds of lives, according to National Weather Service (NWS) Meteorologist Paul Stokols, heat tops the chart for summer's deadliest weather.
In July of 1995, Chicago, Ill., alone reported 514 deaths after the city experienced a 10-day heat wave.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported there were 7,233 heat-related deaths in the United States between 1999 and 2009, with an average of 658 heat-related deaths per year. Last summer, in just two weeks alone at least 32 lives were taken in a heat wave that hit Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and West Virginia.
While official reports for the number of heat-related deaths for this summer are not expected to be out for some time, already 20 children died from heat stroke after being left behind in cars.
According to AccuWeather Meteorologist Erik Pindrock, RealFeel® temperatures hit close to 110 degrees last Friday in Washington, D.C., and other portions of the Northeast. This heat wave also increased the risk of heat-related illnesses, including dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
"With an increasing heat index, temperatures 105 to 110 degrees, and temperatures above body temperature, it becomes very difficult for our bodies to properly cool off," said Stokols.
When temperatures are high, the human body reacts by perspiring, in an attempt to cool itself down. However, high heat and humidity cause that perspiration to fall off the body more quickly than it otherwise would, not only making it tougher to bring down the body's temperature but also causing the body to lose more water. This fact makes hydration a key when confronted with extreme heat.
"A lot of elderly are on their own and they tend not to drink a lot," said Stokols. "They think they can stand the heat without turning on the air conditioning."
People at a higher risk for heat-induced sicknesses are those who are already in a weaker state, including the elderly, young children and those with compromised immune systems, as well as those who work outdoors.
Heat illnesses unlike other forms of illnesses are very sneaky, building up over time. Usually death is not a far call away after the initial heat sickness occurs if it is not dealt with and treated immediately.
"Heat builds on you. Heat death is very violent," said Stokols. "A lot of times you don't realize you're in trouble until it's too late."
During a heat wave, like the one in the Northeast last week, daytime is not the only time when heat becomes a health risk.
The air at night also tends to be warm and this does not allow any recovery time to relieve the body from the high temperatures, Stokol explained to AccuWeather.com. This allows heat illnesses to fester, building day by day until the body hits a critical threshold when it can no longer function correctly.
To help ensure that you "beat the heat," see the tips below from NWS Meteorologist Paul Stokols.
- Stay hydrated, drink two to four glasses of fluids after heavy exercise
- Check on those who are not aware or who are at higher risk for heat illnesses
- Do not let kids or pets stay in the car for any amount of time
- Do not drink fluids that contain alcohol or lots of sugar, these can cause dehydration
- Wear light clothing and sunscreen
- Stay indoors when possible; use fans, air conditioning or seek heat-relief shelters
This week, heavy downpours and thunderstorms will return to the Midwest and the Northeast. Flash flooding is once again the main threat for these areas, bringing with it the possibility of low driving visibility, swift-moving water on roads and highways, overflowing river and stream banks and, occasionally, mudslides.
"Water may not seem powerful but only a few inches can stall your car," said Katie Garrett, outreach coordinator for the Hydrologic Services Division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Each year, flooding is the cause of an average of 95 fatalities, not including flooding deaths from tropical storms. These numbers can change depending on the number of weather events that given year and where geographically they occur.
Driving vehicles through standing and rushing water is what contributes to the majority of the fatality averages.
"Just a few inches of rushing water can easily knock a person over," said Garrett.
A prime example of the dangers of flooding was the July 1977 flood in Johnstown, Pa. The flood occurred the night of July 19 and in just one night, 76 people died.
Last year, according to the CDC, 39 people drowned in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Half of these victims drowned in their own homes.
According to Garrett, the most important thing to do is to be aware of your situation, understand if you are in a flood plain and understand exactly what that means.
A flood plain is simply the area of land next to a river or stream that is susceptible to flooding during a storm, Pindrock said.
Like our number three on the list of summer's deadliest weather, lightning, flooding can also happen very quickly. The best place to be during a potential flood situation is inside.
"It is up to you to keep yourself safe," said Garrett. "Utilize the information yourself and be your own force of nature."
Read the flood safety tips below from the CDC.
- Have an emergency plan including evacuation routes and shelters
- Gather emergency supplies to keep inside your home
- Stay tuned to your local television and radio stations for updates, warnings and watches
- Bring in or tie down outdoor possessions
- If ordered to evacuate, do not drive or walk through flooded roads
Rounding out the list of summer's deadliest weather is lightning. Lightning deaths usually peak in the month of July but are most prevalent in the summer months of June, July and August. Already this year, there have been 12 lightning fatalities.
Each year, lightning accounts for on average 37 deaths. This number has decreased in the past 10 to 15 years, as averages just a few decades ago were in the seventies, according to NOAA Lightning Safety Specialist John Jensenius.
"People are more apt to be outside during the summer months and, in the U.S., lightning peaks in the summer," said Jensenius. "Two-thirds of lightning fatalities are from people enjoying outdoor activity."
Last week, three adults and one boy were struck by lightning while hiking in various national parks.
According to a study conducted by NOAA, 64 percent of lightning deaths occurred when people were participating in leisure activity since 2006. Fishing attested to be the leisure activity resulting in the most lightning deaths, with a total of 26 deaths.
In this study, camping followed fishing with a total of 15 lightning deaths, and close behind boating came in third, with a total of 14 deaths. The other deaths associated with leisure activity included swimming, picnicking, soccer and golf.
Contrary to popular belief, a person is at risk to be struck by lighting as soon as thunder is heard. It does not matter how far away the storm is perceived to be, if thunder can be heard, lightning is a risk.
Similar to flooding, the safest place to be during a thunderstorm is indoors. Nowhere outdoors can protect you completely from a lightning strike. NOAA's lightning safety advertising is a staple for this fact with their tagline, "When Thunder Roars Go Indoors!"
Despite declining yearly averages of lightning deaths, the dangers of lightning are especially prominent in the summer months. Before participating in outdoor activities be sure to check the local forecast. To reduce your risk of being struck, see the tips below from NOAA and NOAA's Lightning Safety Specialist John Jensenius.
- Get inside immediately
- Get out and away from bodies of water immediately
- Plan ahead when participating in outdoor activity
- Never use a cliff, tree or elevated area as a shelter
- Stay away from objects that conduct electricity
- Stay in a safe shelter for a minimum of 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder