Having grown up in an area of the country (lower East Texas) that experiences both hurricanes and tornados, I have to give my vote to that black funnel as the deadlier of the two.
While it is true that hurricanes with their storm surges and longer durations appear more foreboding, many of the deaths in the U.S. that are caused by hurricanes are due to failure (or in Katrina, inability due to government inattention or miscalculation) to get out of the affected area. Hurricanes, which are born in the warm waters of the Atlantic off the coast of West Africa, pack a wallop. Winds from a catewgory 3 or higher hurricane can lift boats out of the water and deposit them far inland. Frame dwellings can be torn from their foundations and converted to piles of kindling. Katrina totally obliterated some small villages along the Gulf Coast, and left devastation along the coastal highway that remains unrepaired. It reshaped the coastline in some places.
The storm surge from a large hurricane can leave towns underwater even far inland if they are near large rivers or other bodies of water. My home town, which is 200 miles from the Gulf Coast was routinely flooded after big hurricanes, under a foot of water from a nearby river for several days.
As a consequence, I have a deep and abiding respect for these named storms. I don’t hesitate to move to higher ground and out of the predicted path when a hurricane alert is called. The thing that really frightens me about hurricanes, though, is neither the wind nor the storm surge – it is the fact that the edge of a hurricane spawns the weather phenomenon that turns my legs to jelly, tornadoes. Literally hundreds of twisters of varying size and force can spring up (or drop down) at the edge of a hurricane.
Unlike a hurricane, which is big, relatively slow moving, and somewhat predictable, tornadoes are the devil spawn of weather events. They seem to come out of nowhere; do their damage and, just as quickly, disappear. The science of predicting tornadoes is still limited. We can know most of the time when conditions are right for them to develop, but are not yet able to predict with accuracy where or how hard they will strike.
Allow me to illustrate the difference with two true stories. In 2005, when Hurricane Rita was bearing down on the Texas and Louisiana coasts, I followed its course on TV. Except for being off about 50 miles about where the eye would make landfall, the forecasters accurately predicted it. The evacuation of coastal cities like Galveston was a bit chaotic, but casualties from the storm were mercifully light. Officials had learned their lesson from Katrina and didn’t put off evacuation to late for Rita. I decided to stay put in Houston after feeling assured it would come ashore far to the east, and slept through landfall.
The second story took place several years earlier in an area about 200 miles north of Houston. One summer evening, I was on my way home from my girl friend’s house. It was a quiet, dark evening with hardly a cloud in the sky. About halfway through my walk home, I heard a sound like a freight train coming from behind me. It was too late for the trains that ran through our small community, so I turned in the direction of the sound, and froze in my tracks. In the distance, against the dark gray sky, I saw the unmistakable shape of a black funnel, gyrating and twisting in my direction. Even though it was probably about a mile away, it sounded like it was right on top of me, and it was clearly heading in my direction. Anyone who lives in Tornado Alley knows the one thing you cannot do is outrun a tornado. I happened to be walking along a raised railroad track with ditches on both sides, so I dove into the nearest ditch and hugged the embankment for all I was worth. The sound got louder and louder until my whole world was one gigantic roar. Then, just as suddenly, all was quiet. Glad to still be breathing, I waited to make sure the wind had died down, then I stood up. About 100 yards from where I’d hidden the dutch there had been a medium sized warehouse used to store cotton. On that spot now, there were only a few scraps of wood and a couple sheets of tin roofing. Of the warehouse there was not another trace. During the destruction of this structure, I had felt only the slightest of breezes, and had heard nothing but the roar of the twister. Another building nearby was totally undamaged.
Which is deadlier? Against the unpredictable destruction that a tornado can inflict in mere seconds, a hurricane is just a big bag of wind.