Two years ago, my parents moved from the close-in suburbs of New Orleans to Mandeville, LA — an outer suburb about 30 miles north of the city (located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain). Good thing, because hurricane Katrina inflicted more damage on the homes and cars in my parents’ old neighborhood — where I grew up — than it inflicted on their current neighborhood.
A few days ago, Karol and I went, for the first time since Katrina, to New Orleans proper. The devastation is appalling in its depth and breadth. The city itself is almost a ghost town. No pedestrians are on the streets; countless traffic signals remain without power; mountains of debris line once-stately avenues; refrigerators sit atop roofs and cars are jammed in trees. Most of the color of that colorful city is drained away.
But Katrina’s death toll — along the entire gulf coast — is only 1,300.
Of course, "only" 1,300 is a harsh thing to write. That’s too many deaths — about 1,300 too many. What strikes me, though, is that in many ways Katrina is truly the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States. It emptied a major city. New Orleans’ population three months after Katrina struck is no more than half of its pre-Katrina population.*
Amidst the incredible property damage, widespread and awesome, only about 1,000 New Orleanians were killed. It’s amazing to me that a city so soundly battered by a monster storm lost so few lives. The death toll is disproportionately low compared to the property destruction.
If such a storm had hit New Orleans a century earlier — indeed, even 50 years earlier — the loss of life would have been more consistent with the massive destruction of property. As I drove through the empty, devastated neighborhoods of the Big Easy, I kept asking myself: if a natural disaster would have so devastated an American city in 1850 or 1900 or 1950, would the death toll have been as low as the death toll suffered from Katrina — that is, much less than one percent of that city’s population?
I think not. The death toll would have been horribly much higher. Today, most New Orleanians escaped the storm with the too-easy-to-curse automobile and, generally, had their lives (if not their properties) saved by the countless capitalist wonders that we typically take for granted.
*Addendum: Bob Higgs, a resident of Covington, LA, (which borders Mandeville, where my parents now live), reminds me that the population of New Orleans proper is estimated to be today a mere ten percent of its immediate pre-Katrina level.