Capitalism and Natural Disasters

By Boudreaux, Donald J. | Freeman, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview
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Capitalism and Natural Disasters


Boudreaux, Donald J., Freeman


Here are the ten deadliest hurricanes to strike the United States since 1900:

1. Galveston, Texas 1900 (between 8,000 and 12,000 persons killed)

2. Florida 1928 (1,836 killed)

3. Hurricane Katrina 2005 (approximately 1,200 killed, still unofficial)

4. New England 1938 (at least 600)

5. Florida Keys 1935 (423)

6. Hurricane Audrey 1957 (390)

7. Southeast U.S. 1926 (372)

8. Louisiana 1909 (at least 350)

9. Atlantic gulf 1919 (at least 287)

10. Louisiana 1915 (275)

The most striking thing about this list is that it contains only two hurricanes from the past half-century: Audrey and Katrina. The other big killers punched into the U.S. mainland quite long ago.

This fact is even more striking in light of the list below: the ten most powerful hurricanes to strike the U.S. since 1900:

1. Florida Keys 1935

2. Hurricane Camille 1969

3. Hurricane Katrina 2005

4. Hurricane Andrew 1992

5. Florida and Texas 1919

6. Lake Okeechobee 1928

7. Hurricane Donna 1960

8. Louisiana 1915

9. Hurricane Carla 1961

10. Hurricane Hugo 1989

Six of these ten most powerful storms have struck during the past half-century, yet only one of them (Katrina) is among America's ten deadliest hurricanes. Even given Katrina's awful devastation, the long-term trend is for hurricanes to kill fewer people than in the past.

Many factors explain this pattern, including the precise location of each storm's landfall. But surely the most important reason why hurricanes today are less deadly than in the past is that we are much wealthier. Of course, we have more sophisticated weather-forecasting and hurricane-tracking technologies, which better alert people to danger. But just as important is the spread of radio, television, telephones, cell phones, and the Internet. These communications technologies enable more and more people, increasingly irrespective of their particular locations, to gain instantly the latest information about coming bad weather and about the range of alternatives for escaping it.

In addition, building materials have improved, making walls and roofs sturdier. And in many places throughout the typical American home, ordinary glass has been replaced with plastic-infused glass that is shatter-resistant.

Automobile ownership is more widespread, and automobiles themselves are more reliable and, hence, more trustworthy to jump into quickly for long drives to safer locations. (It must be said: the much-maligned automobile saved countless lives in New Orleans by enabling car owners to escape Katrina.) In the 1920s and 30s, many fewer people owned cars, and those who did could not trust their vehicles to get them from, say, Galveston to Dallas -without breaking down along the way.

Another benefit of our modern times is better health care. Antibiotics weren't available for much of the first half of the twentieth century; today they are commonplace. Of course, what's true of antibiotics is true of countless other medicines and medical procedures. Many lives that would have been lost to hurricanes before World War II are today saved by routine medical practice.

Not to be overlooked are improved and less-expensive household appliances, such as gasoline-powered generators, solar-powered flashlights, battery-powered televisions, and gasoline-powered chainsaws. Items such as these enable families stricken by violent weather to better survive whatever calamities befall their properties. Likewise with many ordinary grocery items. Bottled water, super-pasteurized milk, and inexpensive canned goods provide survival opportunities denied to pre-World War II Americans.

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