Friday, December 26, 2008

Report identifies deadlier parts of Idaho

Report: Central Idaho residents are more likely to die from natural hazards

Express Staff Writer

Avalanche hazard is just one way in which central Idaho residents contend with Mother Nature. A new report identifies other risks inherent in Idaho life. Photo by Mountain Express

The rugged central core of Idaho is a risky place to live. At least, that's the claim from a new eyebrow-raising report about the chances of being struck down by Mother Nature.

According to the study, Blaine County residents stand a better-than-average chance of being killed by natural hazards like severe winter weather than do inhabitants living in certain other Idaho counties and locations across the country. The study says that residents of Camas County are even worse off, with their chance of kicking the bucket because of natural hazards rising to the highest category included in the dour report.

Published under the innocuous title of "Spatial patterns of natural hazards mortality in the United States" in the International Journal of Health Geographics, the study may make you rethink your outdoor recreation plans, if severe weather threatens. Written by University of South Carolina Geography Professor Dr. Susan Cutter and Ph.D. graduate student Kevin Borden, it assesses which regions of the country experience a higher rate of mortality at the hands of natural hazards like hurricanes, flooding, winter storms, earthquakes and wildfires.

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The report's findings include a mixture of surprising and not-so-surprising conclusions.

"The regions most prone to deaths from natural hazards are the South and intermountain West," the study authors write.

Sure, the bit on the dangers faced by our distant neighbors to the south in places like the Gulf Coast may not seem surprising, what with their hurricanes and tornadoes. But the sublime Rocky Mountain West? That can't be right, can it?

Well, yes and no.

Lest Westerners conclude that all of the intermountain region—including Idaho, Montana and Wyoming—is just one big death trap set by a malevolent Mother Nature, the researchers break the data down further to the county level.

"Significant clusters of high mortality are in the lower Mississippi Valley, upper Great Plains and mountain West," they state.

Included near the back of Cutter's and Borden's report is a map of the lower 48 states that shows the boundaries of every county and whether residents in these places have a better-than-average, average or below-average chance of being killed by any number of natural hazards.

If you live in a county that's shaded in blue to light blue, then you can rest easy. In Idaho, the safest bet is to live in Ada or Nez Perce counties. Portions of northern and eastern Idaho receive an average grade from the authors.

It's in the counties that are shaded red to dark red where residents may want to make sure their senses are highly attuned—and their insurance paid up. Idaho counties rising to the top in that lamentable category include Camas, Lemhi, Fremont, Teton, Caribou, Power and Cassia. Those counties slightly less prone to natural-hazard mortality and yet still maintaining a higher incidence of natural hazard dangers include Blaine County and just about all of central Idaho.

The study authors do point to a lack of consistent sources of hazard mortality data, though they suggest improvements can be made. Such work would be helpful for people who happen to live in natural-hazard-prone areas of the country, Cutter and Borden say.

"It is important to view natural-hazard mortality through a geographic lens so as to better inform the public living in such hazard-prone areas, but more importantly to inform local emergency practitioners who must plan for and respond to disasters in their communities," they state. "Using this as a tool to identify areas with higher-than-average hazard deaths can justify allocation of resources to these areas with the goal of reducing hazard deaths."

Cutter and Borden pulled their natural hazards data from the "Spatial Hazard Events and Losses Database for the United States," compiled by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The database is a county-level collection of hazard data for the entire country. It lists data from 1960 through 2005 for 18 types of natural hazards, including thunderstorms, hurricanes, floods, wildfires and tornadoes. The authors generalized the 18 categories into 11 types of hazards.

Nationwide, the study considered the distribution of deaths due to the 11 hazards from 1970 through 2004. Among these, deaths from heat and drought were the most common across the nation, constituting about 19.6 percent of total mortalities. Next up were deaths from severe summer weather at 18.8 percent and severe winter weather at 18.1 percent. Perhaps surprisingly, lightning made up only 11.3 percent of all natural hazard deaths in the country.

The incidence of natural hazards was also broken down by 10 regions in the lower 48 states. In region 10, which covers Idaho, Oregon and Washington, severe weather—which the authors tabbed as mortality-causing events with multiple weather factors—made up nearly a third of the deaths. Next up is severe winter weather, the study indicates.

Virtually nothing in the report focuses on how much personal lifestyle choices are factors in these deaths. For example, do regions of the country like the northern Rockies with residents that seek high-risk gratification by tackling steep, avalanche-prone backcountry slopes or other dangerous outdoor activities experience a higher rate of mortality from natural hazards like severe winter weather? The authors don't say, though one local official's experience would seem to shed some light on this question.

"I think our biggest risk is avalanche," said Blaine County Coroner Russ Mikel.

As coroner for the county for the past 26 years, Mikel's memory provides a unique, several-decade snapshot of deaths from natural hazards. He can recall several fatalities from things like severe winter weather, lightning and earthquakes.

Mikel expressed surprise about the authors' thorough study of natural hazards.

"It's quite detailed," he said.

Cutter and Borden do seem to toy with the idea that personal choices may be a factor that controls the safety of those living in more natural-hazard-prone regions of the country like central Idaho.

"An important question is whether people in areas of high mortality know what to do (or what not to do) when a hazard event occurs," they say.

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