Is There Another Side to the “Hurricane Death Toll”?

(Image: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

Miguel Sancho, a senior producer with ABC’s 20/20, writes in with a question I’ve often wondered myself but cannot answer. Can you?

A thought – every hurricane season we see headlines ascribing blame for lives lost on a given storm. “Hurricane Irene Blamed for Five Deaths in North Carolina,” etc. Certainly when people drown, are killed by floating debris, or die because they can’t make it to the hospital, the statistic sounds logical. 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. How many homicides, vehicular fatalities, or drug overdoses didn’t happen [last] week in New Orleans, for example, because people were otherwise occupied protecting themselves from Hurricane Isaac? Just wondering if anyone has ever studied this, comparing average morbidity rates in hurricane zones to the stats during the times when hurricanes roll through.
This is not to suggest that overall, hurricanes are a social good. Bastiat’s broken-windows fallacy and all that. But perhaps in this one particular metric, we aren’t seeing the whole picture.

Please don’t judge Sancho’s observation as insensitive to the death and destruction caused by the hurricane itself. I can assure you he is not.

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  1. Tatyana Deryugina says:

    I looked into something like this several years ago but never wrote it up. Traffic fatalities go down significantly during hurricane watches and hurricane warnings. Not quite the same as a hurricane, but I imagine the effect is even more pronounced during the actual event. I don’t remember how many fatalities were prevented, but my guess is that it will generally be larger than the five lives lost in this case.

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  2. TexCIS says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. Nosybear says:

    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. All you can do is project based on what happened before your intervention or in the case mentioned in the article, your hurricane, then see what actually happened. There are statistical tests that can give the likelihood that the pattern you are observing after the intervention is different from what was happening before it but this is strictly probability. The same is true of regulation: You can’t measure what didn’t happen because of the regulations that are in place so after a while they begin to look like onerous requirements because the thing that prompted their establishment has not happened. This is a case where effectiveness will lead to repeal, then everyone is surprised when the thing that prompted passage of the regulation suddenly recurs. Glass-Segal, anyone?

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  4. Seminymous Coward says:

    The real problem is accounting for shifted (as opposed to prevented) “routine” fatalities. For example, all those people not driving to the grocery store due to the storm will result in more cars on the road after the storm getting their missed groceries. The same is true for many errands; they’re delayed instead of cancelled. This bump in traffic could even potentially occur at the same time as storm clean-up is still ongoing. I hesitate to even venture a guess as to whether more or less fatalities ultimately result from 100% of normal traffic for 5 days or, say, 110%, 5%, 15%, 140%, and 130% of normal traffic on each of those days.

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    • Cass says:

      And on top of that there’s the additional problem of deaths related to the aftermath. How many people get into fatal accidents they would have otherwise avoided while getting supplies to rebuild their homes or replace items that were lost in the storm? And how many people commit suicide after a hurricane destroys their lives?

      I obviously haven’t done the research, but it would be interesting to see what happens to violent crimes after a storm. Does the rate of violent crime increase (likely because there are more desperate people, or people for whom their situation went from bad to worse because of the storm), or does it decrease (likely because everyone is too busy rebuilding to commit violent crimes)?

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    • Eric H says:

      Good point – you would just need a large enough time window for all that to smooth out. If you looked at total deaths by month, much of the pulled forward/delayed activity should be grouped with the event.

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  5. Joe J says:

    It was many years ago, but I remember hearing how the Beltway sniper, randomly shooting people, caused a decrease in the murder rate in DC. Not sure if it was actually true. But at that time DC was normally having over a murder a day, so it could very well be. The normal murderers were to scared to go out, and police were everywhere and everyone was looking, so fewer people were shot.

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  6. Jeff says:

    I recall a similar study about deaths during marathons that concluded that marathons (even ignoring the health effects to most participants) save lives as the reduced traffic fatalities from the congestion and closed roads surpassed the deaths on the course. Sorry I don’t have a site.

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  7. RGJ says:

    I recall a similar argument about military deployments, at least as far as adjusting totals, not claiming a benefit. There are a substantial numbers of death by accident with troops at home.

    An attempt to spin this was made in an email comparing military deaths under Clinton and Bush. Below is a Snopes link debunking it somewhat, but also linking to some factual numbers put out by the military.

    It is an interesting thought. Please don’t dislike me because I brought it up.

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  8. Eric M. Jones. says:

    And as usual Nosybear has it right. But these would seem to be easy stats to collect.

    My addition to this is: I wonder how many people didn’t get killed in the strange few days after 9/11?

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    • Rosario says:

      Or how many people got killed because they were driving instead of flying. Could go either way, I guess.

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