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Hardly A Haven: Home Can Be Deadly In Natural Disasters

Home can be a refuge. But when natural disaster strikes, hunkering down at home can be a deadly mistake.

All told, 32 of the 53 New Yorkers who died in last fall's Superstorm Sandy drowned, and most of them died at home, according to a report published today in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

They lived in or near a zone of the city that was under a mandatory evacuation order. They drowned when the storm surge flooded homes and cut off escape routes.

Why didn't they leave? Red Cross volunteers gleaned these comments from neighbors and relatives of the deceased: "Afraid of looters." "Thought Hurricane Irene was mild." "Unable to leave because did not have transportation."

Getting people to evacuate when a hurricane or other natural disaster looms is a challenge that has bedeviled public safety officials nationwide for years.

Safety in the face of natural disasters has been on our minds this week because of the devastating tornado in Moore, Okla. People typically have less warning of an approaching tornado than they do of a hurricane like Sandy, making evacuation less of an option. But planning ahead there ups the odds of survival, too. Many homes in Oklahoma don't have basements where people can shelter. But storm cellars or above-ground safe rooms make it more likely that people will avoid injury from debris flung by 200-mph winds, NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

Today's report on Superstorm Sandy doesn't evaluate whether the people who died received evacuation messages, or whether they were offered help getting out after Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered that people leave the area on Oct. 29. Though the report notes that the median age of those who drowned was 62, it does not address how this factors into heeding evacuation warnings.

"Given the inability and unwillingness of some residents to evacuate, additional research is needed to identify barriers and motivators for persons during an evacuation and the effectiveness of interventions designed to assist those persons," the authors conclude.

Up until the 1970s, drowning was the most common cause of death in hurricanes, the authors of the MMWR report said. Better weather predictions and evacuation plans had helped reduce deaths by drowning. But in 2005's Hurricane Katrina, and now with Sandy, drowning has reemerged as the greatest danger.

After drowning, the most common cause of deaths directly caused by the storm was being crushed or struck by debris. The most common cause of indirect deaths, many of which happened after the storm, was from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.

The New York Times has mapped Sandy-related deaths, including the names and ages of those who perished.

And NPR member station WNYC created an interactive map of New York City evacuation zones that can help people figure out what to do in case of hurricanes.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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