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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Markets save lives”

My October 13th, 2005, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was inspired by hurricane Katrina. You can read my column beneath the fold.

Markets save lives

Here are the 10 deadliest hurricanes to strike the United States since 1900:

1. Galveston, Texas, 1900 (between 8,000 and 12,000 killed)

2. Florida, 1928 (1,836 killed)

3. Hurricane Katrina, 2005 (approximately 1,100 killed; still unofficial)

4. New England, 1938 (at least 600)

5. Florida Keys, 1935 (423)

6. Hurricane Audrey, 1957 (390)

7. Southeast U.S., 1926 (372)

8. Louisiana, 1909 (at least 350)

9. Atlantic gulf, 1919 (at least 287)

10. Louisiana, 1915 (275)

The most striking thing about this list is that it contains only two hurricanes from the past half-century: Audrey and Katrina. The other big killers were quite long ago.

This fact is even more striking in light of the list below — the 10 most powerful hurricanes to strike the U.S. since 1900:

1. Florida Keys, 1935

2. Hurricane Camille, 1969

3. Hurricane Katrina, 2005

4. Hurricane Andrew, 1992

5. Florida and Texas, 1919

6. Lake Okeechobee, 1928

7. Hurricane Donna, 1960

8. Louisiana, 1915

9. Hurricane Carla, 1961

10. Hurricane Hugo, 1989

Six of these 10 most powerful storms have struck during the past half-century, yet only one of them (Katrina) is among America’s 10 deadliest hurricanes. Even given Katrina’s awful devastation, the long-term trend is for hurricanes to kill fewer people than in the past.

Many factors explain this pattern, including the precise locations of landfall. But surely the most important reason why hurricanes today are less deadly than in the past is that we are much 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.

Finally, search and rescue efforts today are more effective because of our great wealth. For example, more-reliable automobiles, airplanes and helicopters ensure that rescue workers get to disaster scenes more quickly and more surely than in the past.

And what makes all these modern marvels possible? Markets — commerce — entrepreneurs’ passion for profitable success at pleasing consumers and consumers’ insistence on getting the best deals that they can.

Although typically criticized by intellectual elites as being grimy and unpleasant, markets in fact are an unsung hero at saving lives.