Nature's Fury Makes South Most Dangerous Area in U.S.

But new 'death map' shows that no region is truly safe from extreme heat, weather

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Americans worried about being caught up in a killer heat wave or deadly natural disaster might do well to avoid the South and the Great Plains states, according to a new U.S. "death map."

The map, devised by University of South Carolina researchers, finds that most deaths from environmental hazards are not the result of dramatic events such as hurricanes or earthquakes

"It's the everyday hazards, such as severe weather -- both in the winter and the summer -- and heat that account for the majority of natural hazard fatalities; it's not the big wham-o event like an earthquake or a Katrina that contribute to the long-term pattern," said lead researcher Susan Cutter, director of the university's Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute.

In that sense, "no place is safe," she noted. "There is no place with few fatalities. Every place has threats -- it's just that the threats are different," Cutter said.

Still, some areas may be a tad more hazardous than others. "For example, you are more likely in some areas in the Great Plains and the mountain states to die from a natural hazard than you would be in the Northeast," Cutter said.

In the southeast, severe weather such as hurricanes remains the main cause of deaths caused by natural hazards. The U.S. west coast also experiences severe weather, and it is also more prone to earthquakes that result in deaths, Cutter added.

The report was published in the Dec. 16 edition of the online journal International Journal of Health Geographics.

For the study, Cutter and her colleague Kevin Borden matched death and weather data from the 1970s straight through to 2004 to create the map.

According to the data, just under 20,000 Americans died from natural hazards during the more than three decades studied.

The team found that deaths from natural hazards were most likely to occur in the South. Here, people typically fall victim to severe weather and tornadoes. In addition, residents of the Great Plains are sometimes done in by extreme summer heat. In the mountain states, cold and flooding account for most of the natural-hazard deaths, and floods and tornadoes top the list as the greatest threats in the south-central U.S.

Cutter and Borden found that, overall, extreme heat remains the leading cause of deaths due to natural hazards in the United States, amounting to nearly 20 percent of total mortality. Ranked by seasons, severe summer weather accounted for 18.8 of deaths, while winter cold accounted for 18.1 percent of deaths, the report found.

More dramatic events -- such as earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes -- may grab headlines, but lumped together, they accounted for only 5 percent of hazard-related deaths, Cutter noted.

In fact, deaths from hurricanes and earthquakes continue to go down, the researcher said. However, Cutter noted that "there are still quite a number of fatalities from storm surges -- people just don't understand the role of water and surging tide."

The United States actually fares much better from natural hazards than other areas of the world, where events such as earthquakes, floods and tidal waves can prove catastrophic. Cutter believes this disparity is the result of the U.S. being better prepared for these calamities. In addition to overall preparedness, building codes in the U.S. take into account threats from earthquakes and wind, she noted.

But there's always room for improvement, said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

"Some environments are more hazard-prone than others, as the constellations of dark red patches in the South and Midwest suggest," Katz said. "It may be that those who can afford to live in less hazard-prone environments do so," he said.

The map's useful display of the distribution of hazards is an invitation to action, Katz said. "We have the opportunity to learn the lessons of hazards past, and avoid the folly of waiting passively for them to recur," he said.