Out of Control Policy Blog

The best defense against hurricanes

In this interesting article, Don Boudreaux examines hurricanes that have hit the U.S. since 1900.

Six of the 10 most powerful hurricanes have hit during the past half-century. But, of the 10 deadliest, only two occurred during the past half-century (Katrina and Audrey in '57).

Don argues that we're better able to survive natural disasters because we're 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 learn 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. 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 20th 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.

The importance of wealth was obvious when Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 people in Honduras in 1998. A hurricane of similar intensity killed only 9 people in Texas in 1979.

This point is often overlooked by those who worry about global warming. Often the debate centers on whether the earth is warming and whether we humans are to blame. Far less attention is paid to how we can make ourselves more resilient in the face of whatever Mother Nature throws our way.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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