Hurricane Laura carved a swath through Gulf Coast, felling trees and destroying buildings. According to the Houston Chronicle there are 230,000 people in Louisiana and another 90,000 in East Texas who still don't have power. As of this writing, there are 15 reported deaths — but most of them weren't related to that physical destruction.
As NPR reports:
Eight of the 15 hurricane-related deaths confirmed by the Louisiana Department of Health are attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators, which can provide life-saving power in emergency situations but also pose a deadly threat if used incorrectly.
The unidentified victims of carbon monoxide poisoning range in age from 24 to 84 years old, and outnumber the deaths caused by drowning, fallen trees and storm cleanup.
Four of these victims came from one family, who left a door open to the garage while the generator was running, allowing CO to sneak into the house (one family member is alive, but in critical condition).
Two Vietnamese men in their 50s/60s, believed to be homeless, sought shelter with four others in a pool hall that had a generator running outside. They allegedly moved it inside — who knows why — and died from CO poisoning, along with one other as-yet unidentified victim. The other shelter seekers are hospitalized.
Carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible. According to the National Institute of Health, it so efficiently impedes the blood's ability to carry oxygen that it can kill someone in just five minutes.
NPR also notes that:
Federal agencies stress the importance of having working carbon monoxide detectors installed, particularly after natural disasters when portable generators get the most use.
And some health experts are calling for broader reform, like stronger industry regulation and better safety features on portable generators, to help prevent potentially-fatal user error in the first place.
These deaths are particularly tragic because they were not only preventable, but directly linked to disaster preparation efforts — death in the process of doing the things that people need to do to survive in a disastrous storm. As climate change worsens, making bigger monsters out of every natural disaster, these types of tragedies may sadly become more common, as desperate people make mistakes while trying to survive.
Carbon monoxide poisoning from generators poses new threat in areas hit by Hurricane Laura [Nick Powell and Dylan McGuinness / Houston Chronicle]
Majority Of Hurricane Laura Deaths Linked To Improper Use Of Portable Generators [Rachel Treisman / NPR]
Image: Public Domain via NOAA