Cranking the heat to take the chill off a raw Halloween night, we suburbanites absorb all that horrifying news of Hurricane Sandy's blast on the East Coast from the safety of our living rooms. In our compassion for friends, relatives and strangers coping with the aftermath, we give thanks we live in the good old hurricane-free Midwest.
But while hurricanes are awarded first names, stay in the news for days thanks to pre-arrival publicity and cover vast areas, they aren't necessarily deadlier than our homegrown tornadoes in the Midwest.
Sandy killed at least 63 people in eight states. In March, a swarm of tornadoes killed 39 people in five states, including 13 in neighboring Indiana. A Feb. 29 tornado killed six people in Downstate Harrisburg.
So are we really safer living in the Midwest?
The answer is tricky, says Christopher C. Burt, a weather historian who writes a blog for Weather Underground's wunderground.com, which became part of The Weather Channel Companies in July. As the author of a book titled "Extreme Weather," Burt has a library of information on Mother Nature that spans centuries. His fatality list changes wildly depending on the time frame being studied, but we settle on data from 1900 to the present.
"Hurricanes would be at the top of the list," Burt says, estimating that tropical storms have killed 20,000 Americans during the last 112 years. But that would change if we started that list in 1901. The hurricane that swept through Galveston, Texas, in September 1900 killed an estimated 10,000, Burt notes.
He figures regional flash floods, not including those resulting from tropical storms, have killed 15,000 Americans since 1900, about the same as the death toll from tornadoes.
Reaching a conclusion that might surprise Midwesterners who are scared whenever a relative moves to earthquake-prone California, Burt estimates that lightning, which kills about 65 people a year, probably has caused 7,000 deaths in the last 112 years. Earthquakes are responsible for only 3,500 deaths and 3,000 of those were the result of the 1906 San Francisco quake, Burt says.
Wildfires have killed maybe 1,000 since 1900, Burt figures. But that toll would be higher if we dipped back into the 19th Century to include the Great Peshtigo Fire on Oct. 8, 1871, which roared through forests in Northeastern Wisconsin and upper Michigan, killing somewhere between 1,200 and 2,400 people. The Chicago Fire, which started on the same night, killed about 300 people.
Volcanoes rank at the bottom, responsible for about 50 deaths, Burt estimates.
His list overlooks some natural events that don't fit neatly into statistical charts.
"The deadliest of all are heat waves. That's the silent killer," Burt says. During our killer summer of 1995, triple-digit temperatures were blamed for more than 700 deaths in the Chicago area. During the heat waves of the 1930s, "probably thousands of people died, but we don't have statistics," Burt notes.
"Deaths from heat and cold waves are just too difficult to even take a potshot at since fatalities occur 'after the fact,' so to speak, and no data for these have been kept prior to the 1950s," Burt says. In the last century, heat and cold probably have killed tens of thousands of Americans. Snowstorms, such as the Great Blizzard of 1888 that shut down the New York Stock Exchange for two days and killed more than 400 people, also play a role.
Nature's fatality list is further complicated by automobile accidents.
"Hundreds of people die every year from weather-caused traffic accidents," Burt says. "Probably more Americans die from these on an annual basis than as a direct result of any specific natural hazard."
No doubt that list would include everyone from drivers who skid on rain-slicked pavements to those who take their eyes off the road to check sunbathers on a hot day.
The East Coast and the Midwest both come with deadly dangers. Burt figures the safest U.S. locations are San Diego, which has some wildfire risk but is off the earthquake fault lines, or Hawaii, as long as people live away from the volcano and above the height of any approaching tsunami. This weather expert makes his own home in the San Francisco area.
"The one thing I really don't like about the SF Bay Area is the weather, or I should say, lack of it," emails Burt, who went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "I REALLY miss thunderstorms, snowstorms, etc.…!"
Safe from blizzards, hurricanes and tornadoes, Burt says his fatality list and his own fate could change in the blink of an eye.
"As far as what is likely to kill the most Americans in the near future, I would have to say an earthquake," Burt says. "One major earthquake on the West Coast could easily turn this list upside down."