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Measuring Irene's Damage

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A day after Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm, 38 fatalities have been reported. Each of these deaths represents a great loss for their survivors. Fatalities are also a guide to the economic impact of the disaster.

The latest report of fatalities is 38 deaths in 11 states: six in North Carolina, six in New Jersey, six in New York State, five in Pennsylvania, four in Virginia, three in Vermont, two in Florida, two in Delaware, two in Connecticut, one in Maryland, and one in Massachusetts.

Among the six fatalities in New York State were in individuals in (1) Spring Valley, Rockland Co., where a Good Samaritan in his 50s was electrocuted as he attempted to assist a child who had gone into a flooded street with downed electrical wires; (2) New Scotland, Albany Co., where a 68-year-old woman was recovered after drowning in an overflowing creek; and (3) Bellport Bay, Suffolk Co., where a 68-year-old windsurfer drowned. The windsurfer's death is assumed to be connected to a surge from Irene.

One fatality was reported in New York City, which suffered from extensive flooding. The City government took great precautions to evacuate people from low-lying areas and to discourage travel.

How bad is 38 deaths compared with loss of life in other hurricanes? The five deadliest Atlantic hurricanes since 1900 are:

  1. Galveston, Tex., 1900 (Category 4), 8,000 to 12,000 deaths
  2. Lake Okeechobee, Fla., 1928 (Category 4), 2,500 to 3,000 deaths
  3. Katrina, 2005 (Category 3), 1,200 deaths
  4. Florida Keys, 1919 (Category 4), 600 deaths (287 on land)
  5. Long Island Express/Great New England, 1938 (Category 3), 600 deaths (256 on land)

The deadliest hurricanes are not always the costliest. Adjusting historical data for inflation to 2010, for wealth per capita and for population, the 10 costliest Atlantic hurricanes are listed below, with their estimated damage. Note that earlier estimates are generally based on physical damage only, whereas later economic impact numbers are more likely to include such impacts as business interruption.

The economic impact of Irene on business interruption is great, but fortunately, the hurricane arrived in New York City on a weekend, when the impact is less serious than during the week. Major factors in business interruption include the cancellation of 9,000 flights at NYC-area airports, suspension of rail and bus services, and retail store and restaurant losses.

Here is the latest list of the 10 costliest hurricanes, in billions of dollars (2010 dollars):

  1. Great Miami hurricane (1926): $164.8 billion
  2. Hurricane Katrina (2005): $113.4 billion
  3. Galveston hurricane (1900): $104.3 billion
  4. Galveston hurricane (1915): $71.4 billion
  5. Hurricane Andrew (1992): $60.5 billion
  6. Long Island Express hurricane (1938): $41.1 billion
  7. Southwest Florida hurricane (1944): $40.6 billion
  8. Lake Okeechobee hurricane (1928): $35.3 billion
  9. Hurricane Ike (2008): $29.5 billion
  10. Hurricane Donna (1960): $28.2 billion

Of the five hurricanes with the greatest loss of life, four are on this list. The one that is missing is the Category 5 Florida Keys hurricane of 1919.

Estimates of insurance claims and damages are already circulating. EQECAT of Oakland, Calif. is estimating insurance claims of $500 million to $1 billion. Kinetic Analysis Corp. of Silver Spring, Md. estimated insurance-company losses at $14 billion several days ago and has since cut its estimate by more than 80 percent, to $2.6 billion, on public storm losses of $7 billion.

Compared with the fatalities and losses for the 10 hurricanes with the largest damages, Hurricane Irene has not turned out to be one of the big ones. Compared with the predictions, this is something to be thankful for.