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Flood-Related Mortality -- Georgia, July 4-14, 1994

On July 3, 1994, tropical storm Alberto struck the Florida panhandle with maximum sustained winds of 60 miles per hour. On July 4, as the center of the storm deteriorated over Columbus, Georgia, a cold front pushed through Alabama and southwestern Georgia from the northwest, producing warm, moist air and unstable weather resulting in heavy, prolonged thunderstorms. Rainfall totals in some areas of south central Georgia were 12-15 inches during a 24-hour period; Americus, Georgia, recorded 24 inches on July 6 (W. Zaleski, National Weather Service, personal communication, 1994). Several rivers, cresting up to 20 feet above flood stage, inundated major portions of the state. Flood waters forced closure of 175 roads in 30 counties, and more than 100 dams and recreational watersheds were either damaged or destroyed. Forty-three (27%) of Georgia's 159 counties were declared federal disaster areas, and seven additional counties were declared state disaster areas. This report summarizes preliminary findings of surveillance for deaths associated with the floods.

To assess mortality associated with flooding, CDC obtained epidemiologic information from medical examiners and coroners (ME/Cs) in 48 of the 50 counties declared disaster areas and in two counties adjacent to disaster areas. ME/Cs were asked about the number of deaths in their counties attributable to flooding during July 4-14 and for information about the circumstances of each death. A flood-related death was defined as a death that resulted from the floods during July 4-14, as determined by the ME/C in each county.

From July 4 through July 14, ME/Cs classified 30 deaths as flood related. Two deaths were excluded from further analyses because they involved motor-vehicle crashes not directly related to flooding. Of the 28 remaining deaths, 27 occurred in 10 of the federally declared disaster counties; one occurred in an adjacent county (Figure_1). Fifteen deaths occurred in Sumter County; local officials attributed approximately 50% of these deaths to the rupture of seven to nine small earthen dams in the county. Waters from the dams inundated surrounding creeks, sweeping away many of the persons who died.

Decedents ranged in age from 2 to 84 years (mean: 31 years; median: 28 years); 20 were male (Table_1). Eighteen deaths occurred on July 6 *. For 27 of 28 decedents, drowning was reported as the cause of death and "accident" ** as the manner of death; the cause and manner of one flood-related death are unknown. Of the 27 drownings, 20 were motor-vehicle-related (e.g., victims drove into low-lying areas, across washed-out bridges, or off the road into deep water). Reported by: C Duke, Coroner, Baker County, Newton; E Bon, Coroner, Bibb County, Macon; J Reeves, Deputy Coroner, Butts County, Jackson; B Miller, Coroner, Calhoun County, Morgan; B Chancellor, Coroner, Chattahoochee County, Cusseta; M Griffin, Coroner, Clay County, Fort Gaines; P Dickson, Coroner, Clayton County, Jonesboro; D Millians, Coroner, Coweta County, Newnan; G O'Neal, Coroner, Crawford County, Knoxville; A Posey, Deputy Coroner, Crisp County, Cordele; B Cooper, Coroner, Decatur County, Bainbridge; J Burton, MD, Medical Examiner, DeKalb County, Decatur; R Bowen, Coroner, Dooly County, Cordele; S Mackey, Deputy Coroner, Doughtery County, Albany; S Manry, Deputy Coroner, Early County, Blakely; C Mowell, Coroner, Fayette County, Fayetteville; D McGowan, Chief Investigator, Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office, Atlanta; J Kennebrew, Coroner, Harris County, Hamilton; R Stewart, Coroner, Henry County, McDonough; D Galpin, Coroner, Houston County, Warner Robins; J Bridge, Coroner, Jones County, Gray; J Smith, Coroner, Lamar County, Barnesville; S Braden, Sheriff, Lee County, Smithville; J Swank, Chief Investigator, Macon County, Montezuma; J Tante, Coroner, Marion County, Buena Vista; J Worley, Coroner, Meriweather County, Alvaton; T Toole, Coroner, Miller County, Colquitt; A Dillon, Coroner, Monroe County, Forsyth; V Novak, Deputy Coroner, Muscogee County, Columbus; B Johnson, Coroner, Newton County, Covington; K Rookes, Acting Coroner, Peach County, Fort Valley; B Hudson, Coroner, Pike County, Meansville; C Young, Coroner, Pulaski County, Hawkinsville; I Bellflower, Coroner, Quitman County, Georgetown; D Crozier, Deputy Coroner, Randolph County, Cuthbert; H Ellison, MD, Coroner, Rockdale County, Conyers; J Wall, Coroner, Schley County, Ellaville; G Skipper, Coroner, Seminole County, Donaldsonville; R Buchanan, Coroner, Spaulding County, Griffin; L McClung, Coroner, S Moreno, Fire Chief, Sumter County, Americus; L Stone, Coroner, Stewart County, Lumpkin; J Cosby, Coroner, Talbot County, Talbotton; B Goddard, Coroner, Taylor County, Reynolds; E Jenkins, Coroner, Terrell County, Dawson; E Lucas, Deputy Coroner, Troup County, West Point; T Cochran, Upson County, Thomaston; S Potter, Coroner, Webster County, Preston; R Coker, Coroner, Wilcox County, Pitts; J Banks, Coroner, Worth County, Sylvester; K Toomey, MD, State Epidemiologist, J Drinnon, Div of Public Health, Georgia Dept of Human Resources. K Davis, Federal Emergency Management Agency; M Johnson, Southeast Regional Climatological Center, Columbia, South Carolina. W Zaleski, National Weather Svc, Peachtree City, Georgia. Surveillance and Programs Br; Disaster Assessment and Epidemiology Section, Health Studies Br, Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, Emergency Response Coordination Group, National Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Floods account for an estimated 40% of natural disasters worldwide (1). In the United States, floods cause an average of 146 deaths per year. Most flood-related deaths are attributed to flash floods (2) (i.e., flooding that occurs within a few hours of heavy or excessive rain, when a dam or levee fails, or following a sudden release of water impounded by an ice jam {1}). Most flash floods occur during July-September (3) and are usually caused by slow-moving or localized and heavy thunderstorm activity. When these conditions exist, tributary streams can crest their banks in hours, or even minutes, after the onset of heavy rain (1).

The rapid onset of high-rising waters often makes effective warning and escape difficult and increases the risk for death (4). The leading cause of death from flash floods is drowning, and more than 50% of drownings in flash floods are associated with motor vehicles (5). Victims are often unwilling to abandon their cars, trucks, or boats and can be trapped inside. In Georgia, drowning was the cause of 96% of flood-related deaths, and 74% of these were motor-vehicle related.

Surveillance data from ME/Cs have provided timely information on mortality associated with natural disasters (6,7). Data from ME/Cs in past disasters have been used to develop recommendations for preventing flood- and other disaster-related deaths (7). During the 1993 midwestern floods, ME/C surveillance data were used to monitor flood-related mortality and to develop prevention strategies, including disseminating information about flood and postflood hazards to groups at increased risk and identifying water tributaries that posed hazards for flooding. Similarly, the surveillance findings from Georgia suggest that deaths from floods may be prevented by identifying flood- and flash-flood-prone areas and then advising persons to take appropriate actions when the potential exists for a flash flood. For example, motorists should be warned not to drive through areas in imminent danger of flash floods or onto roads and bridges covered by rapidly moving water (8). If vehicles are necessary to evacuate a community, particularly a mobile home community, safe evacuation routes should be identified in advance. In addition, deaths may be prevented by inspecting and requiring safety certification of dams located in flood-prone areas.

References

  1. French JG. Floods. In: Gregg MB, ed. The public health consequences of disasters. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1989:39-49.

  2. Federal Emergency Management Agency. A report to US Senate Committee on Appropriation. Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1992.

  3. French J, Ing R, Von Allmen S, Wood R. Mortality from flash floods: a review of National Weather Service reports, 1969-81. Public Health Rep 1983;6:584-8.

  4. National Weather Service/American Red Cross/Federal Emergency Management Agency. Flash floods and floods...the awesome power!: a preparedness guide. Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service/American Red Cross, 1992; report no. NOAA/PA 92050, ARC 4493.

  5. Frazier K. The violent face of nature: severe phenomena and natural disasters. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc, 1979.

  6. CDC. Medical examiner/coroner reports of deaths associated with Hurricane Hugo -- South Carolina. MMWR 1989;38:754,759-62.

  7. CDC. Flood-related mortality -- Missouri, 1993. MMWR 1993;42:941-8.

  8. CDC. Beyond the flood: a prevention guide for personal health and safety. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1993.

* Because some decedents were not found until after high waters subsided, it was sometimes difficult to verify exact date and time of death; therefore, all dates reflect the day on which the decedent was found. 

** "Manner of death" and "accident" are medicolegal terms used on death certificates and refer to the circumstances under which a death occurs; "cause of death" refers to the injury or illness responsible for the death. When a death occurs under "accidental" circumstances, the preferred term within the public health community for the cause of death is "unintentional injury".
Figure_1

Figure_1
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Table_1
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TABLE 1. Flood-related deaths, by date of death, age and sex of decedent, and
circumstance of death -- Georgia, July 4-14, 1994
==============================================================================================
              Age
Date *       (yrs)      Sex      Circumstance of death
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
July 5        40         M       Swept into creek while trying to repair bridge
              54         M       Lost control of vehicle on wet roadway
              31         F       Drove onto washed-out road
              24         F       Pickup truck submerged in drain ditch
July 6        60         F       Car swept into flooded creek
              84         M       Washed out of mobile home
              35         M       Pickup truck swept off road into flooded creek
               8         M       Pickup truck swept off road into flooded creek
              16         M       Pickup truck swept off road into flooded creek
              42         M       Swept out of car
              40         M       Tractor-trailer swept off road into flooded creek
              12         M       Tractor-trailer swept off road into flooded creek
              28         F       Swept out of car onto flooded road
              20         F       Swept out of car onto flooded road
              67         F       Swept away by swiftly moving waters
              17         M       Boat swept into flooded creek
              40         M       Car swept off road into flooded creek
              18         M       Swept off inner tube into flooded creek
              32         M       Swept into flooded creek
              35         M       Swept out of car while in parking lot
              16         F       Swept away trying to rescue a dog
              35         M       Swept out of pickup truck onto flooded road
July 7         4         M       Swept out of car into flooded river
               2         M       Swept out of car into flooded river
            Unknown      M       Unknown
July 8        62         M       Swept out of car as bridge washed out
July 9        28         F       Swept out of car onto flooded road
July 10        3         M       Swept out of car onto flooded road
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
* Because some decedents were not found until after high waters subsided, it was sometimes
  difficult to verify the exact date and time of death; therefore, all dates reflect the day
  on which the decedent was found.
==============================================================================================

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