Communing with the Dead

(I extend my sympathies to all of those who have lost loved ones, or are suffering as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  It is my hope that this post (updated from last year) will be of use.*)

Over this next week, too many people who survived Hurricane Sandy will die from preventable causes. The living can learn a lot from the tragic death of disaster victims. What killed them? What were they doing when they died? Their death can become a “teaching tale” that benefits the living.

Tales from the Grave

Behavioral researcher Wendy Joung studied firefighter errors in judgment, and determined that firefighters who reviewed case histories of fatal errors showed improved judgment and a higher order of adaptive thinking than firefighters who went through “positive” training. The study involved reviewing case histories of errors vs. accurate decisions made in similar situations.

Laurence Gonzales argues that reading accident reports in your chosen field of recreation informs you of the mistakes that others have made. It puts you on the lookout for similar situations, and teaches you how to avoid them. Here are the major categories to pay attention to during Hurricanes and related disasters:


Puerto Rico: A 62-year-old woman was killed as she tried to cross a river in her car and was swept away.

New Jersey: The body of a 20-year-old woman was recovered from a gray Honda Accord in floodwaters in Pilesgrove, 35 miles southeast of Philadelphia, said a police spokesman. A diver found the woman in the submerged car about 150 feet off of Route 40, eight hours after she had phoned her boyfriend and police to report she was “up to her neck” in water. Emergency crews who were looking for that woman rescued another stranded motorist.

Eighty-one percent of those surveyed about hurricanes believe their risk of harm due to wind was medium or high, while 42% perceived their flood risk to be so. In other words, we think wind dangerous, but we tend to critically underestimate the dangers of flooding.

Stop trying to play “chicken” with natural disasters. Get off the road, until public officials tell you the streets are clear. Water does tremendous damage not only to houses, but to roads as well. When immediate danger is over, drivers can find themselves the victims of collapsing roads that were invisibly damaged by flooding followed by receding water.

It is easy to underestimate the power of a raging surge of water. Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars causing loss of control and possible stalling. Without sonar or a ruler, you can’t “tell” how deep the water is in the middle of that “puddle.” A foot of water will float many vehicles. Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles, including sport utility vehicles (SUV’s) and pick-ups. Don’t risk it.


New York: A rabbi was electrocuted while trying to rescue a child who was trapped under a live cable downed by Hurricane Irene. A relative said both father and son were looking for storm damage outside their house. The boy touched a metal fence that was in contact with a live wire and a pool of water, and the father was hurt trying to save him. The rabbi was driving by and stopped his car and also tried to free the boy from the cable, but was killed by the high voltage.

Miami, FL: On streets with 2 to 6 inches of water, three teenagers and a woman in her 50s were electrocuted in an intersection after a power line fell, Fire Rescue said. Minutes later a child was electrocuted in another part of the county. “We’ve been giving out the message all day that you need to stay inside,” the official said. “This is not the time to do damage assessment. We have lines down throughout the county.”

One of the greatest risks after a storm has dissipated comes from fallen power lines. People don’t have to actually touch power lines to be injured by them. You can be badly burned even if you are standing a distance away, because the wet ground can transmit electricity from the wires.

Storm Surges

While most people tend to focus on the intensity of hurricane winds, more will consider evacuating if they believe flooding is likely. Storm surges during hurricanes do the most damage. There were 13-foot storm surges in New York City during Hurricane Sandy: that is 13 feet above mean sea level. Know whether you are at or below sea level, or are close to oceans, rivers or even streams. Not sure? Here’s a handy map where you can check sea elevation where you live, and how increases in sea levels or waters surge will impact you. This map covers almost everywhere on Earth.

Once you know the dangers, consider flood insurance. Few people have it. More will in the future. Flood insurance premiums are established by the US Federal Government, and your rate is the same from any insurer, so you can easily estimate your premiums. If your rates are high, perhaps you should ask yourself why the risk to the insurer is so great. The policy does not take effect for 30 days. One of the reasons hurricanes are so damaging today, is that more and more people are insisting on living closer and closer to the water. And the oceans are rising. The one-foot rise in our oceans over the last century means that a five foot ocean break built a century ago is only 4 feet of protection today. We’ll perhaps see fewer hurricanes touching down on land because of the conditions of the oceans, but scientists agree that those that make landfall will be more powerful and destructive.

The cost of an evacuation – travel expenditures, lost wages, and missed vacations – is modest when considered against the cost of living in these areas, yet it figures prominently into decision-making for both public officials and insurance agencies. Especially in cities like New York, where hurricanes are a relative unknown (until now), how much public monies will be increasingly spent shoring up against rising tides? One study found that hurricane evacuation costs for ocean counties in North Carolina ranged from about $1 million to $50 million (in 2000 dollars) depending on storm intensity and emergency management policy. How will governments bear this cost repeatedly? Flood insurance alone for these “high risk” areas will soon become even more prohibitive. How great will it be to live in some of the “best” neighborhoods in wonderful cities, if part of the price is periodic evacuations, flooding, and possible death?

Preparation and Clean-up

The Bahamas: A banker died trying to repair a window shutter before Hurricane Sandy approached. The gust pushed him off a ladder.

Much of surviving or staying safe during a natural disaster is the work you do well in advance:

• The gutters you clean and repair using the right sized nails to secure it.
• The propane tanks you filled last month.
• The car wipers that were replaced yearly and the tires that have good tread.
• The extra month’s supply of medicines you got from your MD, so you don’t have to run out today to the pharmacy.
• Your food storage.

Flooded basements can also be dangerous. And toxic. Sewage backup is common. This pamphlet by the City of Columbus Department of Public Utilities provides basic information.


New Jersey: A sixty-one year old banker, who had previously survived a brutal stabbing, was cleaning up his driveway of debris when a tree fell on him and killed him.

Maryland: A woman was killed in Queen Anne’s County after a tree fell on her house, collapsing the chimney, said a spokesman for the state emergency management agency.

Prospect, Connecticut: One fatality has been reported, after an unidentified senior citizen died in a house fire caused by a falling tree limb, according to a fire department spokesman.

Newport News, VA: an 11-year-old boy was killed when a tree crashed into his apartment building, said a spokeswoman for the city.

Berks County, PA: An 84-year-old man was killed Saturday afternoon while napping in his living room recliner when a large tree fell on his home.

Hurricanes can uproot trees. Trees overhanging your house are best cut down, or trimmed back. Keeping them pruned and healthy is one less threat to safety. It is an expensive undertaking, but far less expensive than replacing your roof or losing a loved one.

Carbon Monoxide

Connecticut Dept of Health: Last year’s storm (2011) resulted in one of the largest outbreaks of carbon monoxide poisoning ever seen in the nation, with 143 cases of CO poisoning and five CO-related deaths. Most of the cases were related to the improper use of portable generators and charcoal grills.

Chicago, Il: Five people between the ages of 14 and 54 were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning, after being found by fire officials. Their generator was operating in a garage, and should have been outside. Fire officials believe the fumes seeped into the family’s house, resulting in a dangerous carbon monoxide concentration of 600 parts per million. “We had used the generator for the last storm and set it up in exactly the same place,” one family member reported. The family became alarmed when everyone was getting up to urinate frequently in the night, and then began getting headaches.

University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: After Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, more than half the patients treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at a Houston hospital had turned on the generator to power TV or video games, according to a 2009 report in Pediatrics. Parents worry that it’s too dangerous to let kids play outside because of debris or fallen power lines, the researcher said.

The risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning goes up after a hurricane, as people who lose electricity run portable generators, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. CO is odorless and colorless, and it can kill in minutes. Opening windows and doors, and operating fans is not sufficient to prevent the buildup of CO in a home. Of those that pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning, one-third die, and another third have permanent injuries.

Install carbon monoxide alarms outside sleeping areas and on every level of the home to protect against poisoning. They are cheap protection. Change the alarms’ batteries every year, on your birthday, so you remember. Many are fearful that generators will get stolen, and so choose, instead, to run them in their basements or garages. This is a bad idea. Even running them close to your house is risky. The safest way to set up a generator is on a permanent concrete slab, ideally 50 yards from the house, (a minimum of 15-20 feet away) secured with a metal chain. This takes money and planning ahead but like cutting down or pruning trees, it is a worthy investment.

Fire from Candles and other Alternative Lighting

Between 1984 and 1998, candle-related deaths from home fires following hurricanes were three times greater than the number of deaths related to the direct impact of the hurricane. Kerosene lamps require a great deal of ventilation and are not designed for indoor use.

Battery Powered LED Puck Lights are an inexpensive alternative to candles. They are cheap enough to put up in every room, and leave there until an emergency. Put them near light switches, because it is natural to reach for the light switch during a power outage, even days later. With the Puck Lights, you can apply this habit.


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.: A huge wave completely decimated a family’s home, killing an eighth grader and her father. Her mother remains in critical condition. The family stayed behind because their home was looted when they evacuated during Tropical Storm Irene last year.

Evacuating your home requires knowledge and thoughtful reflection. Decision-makers in your family must determine if, when, how, and where you will go if you are presented with evacuation directives. Would you go if it were a voluntary evacuation, or only in response to a mandatory evacuation order? Most of those who evacuate stay with friends or family. Check with loved ones ahead of time about whether they’ll have room for you, and whether you can bring your pets, or know what you’ll do with your pets, that can’t go with you. Learn how to close up a home to keep it safe, while you are gone. The best book I know on how to do that, complete with detailed instructions, is Kathy Harrison’s “Just In Case.”

My Experience Last Year

This brings me to my closing thoughts about my own experience. Last year, my husband and I drove home a long distance after a wedding, while Hurricane Irene was in full swing. I consider myself prudent about emergency preparedness, and our family has taken many steps to plan for a variety of disasters. But my husband and I decided to spend an extra hour or two sleeping in, after a joyful evening of celebration. We still left relatively early and as we drove, the wind was hardly gale force. Wind, we believed, was our greatest concern.

Imagine our shock and increasing panic as we got closer to home, and watched one road after another wash out ahead of us. We were met with multiple road closings that required considerable detours, or roads that were no longer passable because rivers were gushing across them. Those few hours we delayed now appeared reckless. The delay could have cost us our lives.

When we think about disaster, we often imagine taking immediate action to minimize the damage, such as boarding up our windows or pulling in the lawn chairs and flower pots so they don’t become hurricane projectiles. But more often, preparing for the impending risks requires more careful long-term thinking and learning about the real dangers which flow from the seemingly harmless decisions we make ahead of time. With our large picture windows, and friendly hiking trails, we have come to think of nature as “our friend,” but during a natural disaster, nature is not our friend, and is not invested in keeping us alive. If we don’t respect the sheer magnitude of its force, we put ourselves needlessly in danger. Hubris and carelessness are as deadly as ignorance. During this Halloween Season, if we listen and learn, the dead can teach us profound lessons.

* I’m aware that the people who most need to read this are probably without internet power.  Print it out and put it with your preparations. If you are in contact with those folks who are without power, read it to them.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.

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