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Florida's 'Irene-related' deaths debated

Trees toppling on homes. Fires sparked by downed power lines. A woman trapped in a flooded car.

Those were some of the factors in the growing death toll from Hurricane Irene, which totaled 40 in 11 states Monday.

Two Florida deaths were among them.

In New Smyrna Beach, a 55-year-old surfer died after he was thrown from his board in the massive waves, and in north Florida, a 55-year-old New Jersey tourist drowned wading in rough surf.

Tragic as they were, how were these deaths attributed to a hurricane that didn't hit Florida?

It's a question for each county medical examiner and for the state emergency officials who report the final toll. Those numbers, they acknowledge, are somewhat subjective.

"We'll make the determination as to whether they're attributable to the hurricane or not," said Bryan Koon, the Florida director of emergency management. "There are no specific requirements in reporting the deaths."

Although the state will report the deaths to federal officials and the news media, states do not receive federal funding based on deaths or injuries, Koon said.

Still, death tolls mean something. The National Hurricane Center, news organizations and other historical references often cite fatalities as a measure of a hurricane's strength and force.

But such numbers can be tricky. When a governor declares a state of emergency for any weather-related event, an order is issued to district medical examiners to use a standard reporting format in recording deaths related to that event. Those numbers get reported to the state and eventually to news media.

In the case of Hurricane Irene, no state of emergency was ever declared and no order was issued in Florida. Koon said he was not aware if Volusia and Flagler counties would report the surfer and swimmer deaths as official hurricane-related deaths.

Bill Pellan, the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner's director of investigations, said he would not count the surfer and swimmer as hurricane-related deaths.

"We've had people cleaning debris out of gutters and fall off of roofs after a hurricane passes," Pellan said. "There's some subjectivity there. Some medical examiners' offices will say that's hurricane-related, but we would not."

The National Hurricane Center typically lists a "direct" and "indirect" fatalities count for each hurricane, but those numbers can be confusing. Direct deaths are likely to be those caused by falling debris or flood drownings. But indirect can mean anything from a heart attack brought on by the stress of a hurricane to carbon monoxide poisoning due to faulty use of power generator.

Although Florida's east coast did feel the effects of Irene as it passed by, the conditions were not unusual. Volusia County's beaches saw 6-foot surf on Saturday, but waves that size come about roughly 50 times a year, said Kevin Sweat, the director of the Division of Beach Safety for the county.

Those waves may have led to the death of the 55-year-old experienced surfer whose death was included among those killed by Irene. But Sweat wouldn't necessarily call it a hurricane death.

"I mean, he hit his head on the bottom," Sweat said. "That can happen any day you go out surfing when there are big waves."

Times staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Florida's 'Irene-related' deaths debated 08/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 6:38am]
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