Medical Examiner Attributes 25 Percent of Hurricane Deaths to Cleanup Efforts

November 8, 2005

Cleanup activities after hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 resulted in 25 percent of the 201 deaths registered according to Dr. Stephen Nelson, chairman of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.

Accidents from cleaning up, cutting dead tree limbs with chain saws, climbing atop shingle-stripped roofs, lugging heavy debris, killed more people than howling winds and rising waters, and even more than traffic collisions on dark roads or fumes from generators left on indoors.

The average age of adults who died during cleanup activities was 57. All were men.

“The vast majority [of hurricane deaths] are the indirect deaths that come after the storm, made worse by people who have pre-existing conditions exacerbated by the stress or strain of the storm,” Nelson, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Physical and emotional stress can take a toll on all types of people, making even someone who normally knows what he’s doing more prone to fatal error. A man with a weak heart overtaxes it with strenuous cleanup activity in the heat; a tree-trimmer touches a downed tree covering an electrified power line; an experienced roofer falls from a ladder.

Arthur Levon Davis Jr., 56, died Sept. 27, 2004, two days after Hurricane Jeanne swept through South Florida. The West Palm Beach man was repairing the roof of Dixie Shoes when he fell two stories. “It wasn’t anything that was new to him,” his mother, Alethia Davis, said. “You’re in a different frame of mind after a hurricane.”

That might be one reason why the mundane can be so deadly in the aftermath of a storm.

The Sun-Sentinel examined and categorized storm deaths reported by medical examiners across Florida in the past two years. While medical examiners classify storm deaths only as accidental, natural and suicide, the newspaper examined more specific causes. The research affirmed the well-known admonition from authorities, far more people die after a storm than during it, but also revealed that cleaning up after a storm can be a highly dangerous activity.

Cleanup accidents accounted for 55 deaths, or 27 percent of the total. In this group, 22 fell from roofs, ladders or trees; 14 were hit by falling or moving objects such as tree limbs or a wayward backhoe; nine died from heart attacks; seven were electrocuted while clearing debris or repairing homes or power lines; and three died when a bulldozer or other machinery malfunctioned.

Thirteen of the cleanup fatalities were identified as hired workers in the medical examiner reports. Most were residents cleaning up their property and streets.

Those patterns are holding true for Wilma, though the death count from the most recent storm to strike Florida continues to rise.

“Some storm-related deaths unfortunately don’t get detected immediately and a decision rendered as a storm-related death until sometime down the road,” Tom Berlinger, spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told the Sun-Sentinel. “A storm victim could fall into a coma and die in a hospital a month later, for example.”

So far, eight of the 30 deaths associated with Wilma, or just over a quarter, appear to be from cleanup activities.

People need to recognize their limitations, said Dr. John Lanza, director of the Escambia County Health Department and a veteran of Pensacola hurricanes.

“You don’t want to run a chain saw if you’re not able to,” he said. “You need to figure that out beforehand. You don’t want to learn how to use a chain saw during a hurricane.”

Acknowledging medical realities is especially important, Nelson said.

“If you’ve got a heart condition, you probably are not the best person to be cleaning up your heavy debris, as much as you want to,” he said.

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