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Life toll: The positive effects of hurricanes?

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 4:09 p.m. MDT

Jeannie Berg pushes part of her mobile home frame aside as she tries to rescue goods from her destroyed home in Dania Beach, Fla., in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma moved through the area. (J. Pat Carter, AP) Jeannie Berg pushes part of her mobile home frame aside as she tries to rescue goods from her destroyed home in Dania Beach, Fla., in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma moved through the area. (J. Pat Carter, AP)

The most somber part of any news report on any disaster is the death toll. Storms and hurricanes are measured in the public mind more by who they kill than by the intensity of the wind or the duration of the whirlwind.

But the death toll is not just a sum of human misery, it is also a statistic — which drew out a question sent to the economist/statisticians on the Freakonomics.com website: "Certainly when people drown, are killed by floating debris, or die because they can't make it to the hospital, the statistic sounds logical," said Miguel Sancho, a senior producer with ABC's 20/20. "But it occurred to me that perhaps, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, we should also give hurricanes 'credit' for lives not lost thanks to the interruption of normal human activity."

The statistical question is how many people, because they had to take care of hurricane business (read "evacuate"), didn't die from drug overdoses, murder, crash in a car, etc.

One commenter on the website, "Nosybear," wrote in response, "You touch on one of the most important questions in risk management and one reason there's always a call for deregulation: You can't measure what didn't happen."

This is also the idea expressed in something Sancho referenced in his question: "Bastiat's broken-windows fallacy."

Wikipedia describes the parable of the broken window as an analogy told by economist Frederic Bastiat in 1850. People gathered around a shopkeeper's window after the shopkeeper's son threw a rock through it. It cost the shopkeeper six francs to have someone repair the damage. The crowd speculates it isn't that bad since if things like this didn't happen, then window repairers wouldn't have work to do.

Bastiat, however, said this is a bad analysis, because it only looks at what is seen. Wikipedia quoted him: "It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented."

Sancho wanted to know if anyone had ever studied the question about hurricane death tolls, but he was careful to add, "This is not to suggest that overall, hurricanes are a social good."

"Please don't judge Sancho's observation as insensitive to the death and destruction caused by the hurricane itself," Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner also added. "I can assure you he is not."

Although there do not appear to be studies on Sancho's question about hurricanes, there was a study (as one commenter on Freakonomics.com pointed out) on marathon deaths.

Runners die from heart attacks during marathons. WebMD summarized a report on the study. The death toll in marathons from 1975 to 2004 was 26 people out of 3.2 million runners, usually in the last mile.

An unseen effect of marathons, however, was all the traffic stopped with road closures. "On marathon days," WebMD reported, "those counties had about two fewer traffic deaths for each sudden cardiac death that was marathon-related."

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