Natural Disasters: Prosperity, Technology Save Lives

Only a few days after Hurricane Katrina had washed away New Orleans, its evil sister Rita sent 2.8 million people running from the Houston area. But in the end, Rita turned out to be a dud. The storm refugees (including some personal friends of mine) are already returning.

The nation’s response to Katrina and Rita has been much debated and will be scrutinized for a long time. One wonders how a nation which prides itself on its wealth, technological expertise and power may be reduced to chaos and incompetence in the face of disaster. On the other hand, to put things in perspective, one needs to look at the havoc caused by tropical storms in other parts of the world. In 1942, a hurricane in Bengal, India caused 40,000 deaths. In 1991, a cyclone in Bangladesh killed 139,000. The same country was hit by a cyclone in 1970, which cost 300,000 lives.

While the economic loss from “Katrita” will be gigantic, the loss of human life will be relatively small for storms of this size. Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved by the communication system, the traffic infrastructure and above all, space technology which allows the remote tracking and forecasting of storms and makes timely evacuations possible.

Lives saved means survivors who need to be supplied with shelter, security, medicine and food in the short term, and jobs and housing in the long term. These are problems Bangladesh didn’t even need to deal with. There, 300,000 deaths also meant 300,000 fewer people to feed and clothe.

In the case of Katrina and Rita, science and technology have not been able to completely prevent the loss of life. But at least it was minimized dramatically.

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