More than four years after Katrina left the deadliest toll for a tropical storm in the United States in nearly a century, most Americans remain convinced that hurricanes pose a greater threat to human life than in the past.
As the quietest hurricane season of the decade wound down this year, Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University polled 1,001 adults and found that 56 percent believe that "hurricanes are becoming more dangerous to human life than they used to be."
That makes sense to disaster psychologist David Sattler, a professor at Western Washington University who has studied human reactions to tropical storms, earthquakes, tsunamis and other phenomena for decades.
"Katrina had a powerful effect on many people, whether they lived in the Gulf region or not," Sattler said. "There's a heightened sensitivity now to hurricanes and the risks they pose that our experience shows will endure at least a few more years."
Katrina killed more than 1,500 people with storm surge and flooding along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana and in New Orleans and its suburbs — making it the third-deadliest hurricane ever to hit the United States — behind only a 1928 storm that killed some 2,400 around Florida's Lake Okeechobee and the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane that killed more than 8,000.
The poll results suggest that even though only two tropical storms made landfall this season (and two others skirted the coastline), Americans are more hurricane-conscious.
"I suspect people today are more aware of hurricanes after what happened in New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast during Katrina and on the low-lying Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston during Ike in 2008," said Abby Sallenger, head of the U.S. Geological Survey's Storm Impact research group. "Even so, rebuilding in hazardous coastal areas seems to be continuing and will likely fuel devastation during the next great storm.''
The Scripps-Ohio University survey also found that 36 percent of respondents had "experienced" a hurricane.
Experts said it's doubtful that more than a third of any national sample has actually been battered by hurricane winds. A 1992 study by Jerry Jarrell of the National Hurricane Center used Census data to show that 85 percent of the coastal population from Texas to Maine had never experienced a direct hit by a major hurricane.
Officially, the government says some 36 million Americans, or about 12 percent of the population, live in areas that could be directly threatened by Atlantic hurricanes.
"Certainly, we've been in a much-busier-than-average period for tropical storms since 1995, so the exposure, even if it's been through media to some extent, is greater,'' said Chris Landsea, another researcher at the NHC.
That may be particularly true among the youngest adults in the survey, who grew up in a period when more than a dozen hurricanes made landfall in the United States.
More than 73 percent of those ages 18 to 24 said hurricanes have become more dangerous, compared with just over 50 percent of those 65 and older.
More than half of the young-adult respondents said they felt that people are more reluctant to visit Texas, Florida or other coastal area due to the danger of hurricanes, and 22 percent said they had actually delayed or canceled a trip due to a hurricane or threat of a hurricane.
Overall, only 26 percent of those surveyed said they believed people are reluctant to visit coastal areas due to hurricanes, and just fewer than 14 percent said they had changed their travel plans.
Sattler noted that the extended recovery period after Katrina, the focus on the national government's response and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents from the region to all corners of the United States "may have given more Americans a sense of having been affected by this disaster, even if they were not physically near by, much the way people felt personally impacted by the events of Sept. 11."
People in the survey "believing that hurricanes are becoming more dangerous to human life doesn't necessarily mean people think that storms are becoming stronger,'' said Jay Baker, an expert on hurricane preparation at Florida State University. "It could be a recognition that there are more people in harm's way, which there are."
The poll sample was evenly split, 44 percent to 44 percent, over whether hurricanes are "becoming more common than they used to be." Twelve percent had no opinion.
Scientists have published dozens of reports in recent years both confirming and casting doubt that hurricanes are becoming more or less common or more or less powerful due to a warming climate and particularly due to warmer sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic.
Hurricanes do come in decades-long cycles of more or less frequency. But Landsea and others believe that any increase in storm count during the past 50 years has as much to do with the advent of weather satellites as climate change.
While it's true that warmer sea temperatures influence hurricanes, so do a number of other factors.
"Most of the models suggest global warming has increased the severity of storms by perhaps 1 percent and that this trend will make them 5 percent stronger 100 years from now," Landsea said.
Galveston in 1900 was one of the few places in the country where tens of thousands of people lived on a beach. Today, millions live within reach of storm surge and damaging winds.
"Even if you get a 90 percent-or-better response to an evacuation order, that still can leave tens of thousands in danger, as we saw in New Orleans,'' Landsea said. "If people think storms are more dangerous, they're right, not because the storms are worse, but because more people are in the way than ever."
The survey was conducted by telephone from Sept. 27 through Oct. 21 among 1,001 adult residents of the United States. The poll was sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation and conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University under the direction of associate professor Jerry Miller.
The survey has a margin of error of about 3 percentage points.