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Paul Rhode

Comparing a Comprehensive U.S. Natural Disaster Database

Global climatic change, it is commonly asserted, will make extreme weather events morefrequent and more damaging. How local economies can adapt to mitigate the consequences of such events, reduce the hazards, and become more resilient are open questions, as are the roles of policies such as disaster insurance and emergency relief. A major concern is that such collective responses will dampen individual incentives to take precautions, for example, by pre-emptively avoiding hazardous areas. Examining responses to actual natural disasters under differing policy regimes promises to shed valuable light of these important issues.

Looking at United States over the 20th century is a good environment in which to begin such an exploration. With its relatively sophisticated statistical system, the United States has a virtually unparalleled database of local economic activity over an extensive and varied physical environment. It also has relatively well documented record over the 20th century of a wide range of natural disasters, including earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, blizzards, tornados, droughts, forest fires, among other events. The record of events in prior centuries is far more spotty.

With the rise of big government over the 20th century, the federal government has assumed much greater responsibilities for providing disaster relief. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the federal and even the state governments did little to help their citizens in response to natural disasters. One well-known example of this laissez faire approach was the veto by President Grover Cleveland on Feb. 1887 of a bill to provide funding for drought-stricken Texas farmers to purchase seed corn. Providing disaster assistance was considered the domain of private charities funded by voluntary contributions.

Over the early 20th century and especially after the First World War, non-governmental organizations such as the American National Red Cross developed the capacity to address very large natural calamities. The relief effort in response to Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 is a leading example. But with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, the role of the federal government to provide for the “general welfare” of the American people greatly expanded. After World War Two and especially after the Cold War, the nation-state assumed core responsibilities for the management of emergencies, ranging from nuclear attacks to natural 1 disasters. The formation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979 was the capstone of this policy shift. Thus, the U.S. example provides a valuable opportunity to investigate population and economic responses to natural disasters under different specific policy regimes in a setting with relatively good records and a fundamentally stable general institutional environment.

Leah Platt Boustan (UCLA), Matthew Kahn (UCLA) and I have begun to work on these issues. See Leah Platt Boustan, Matthew E. Kahn, and Paul W. Rhode, “Moving to Higher Ground: Migration Response to Natural Disasters in the Early Twentieth Century” American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, (May 2012) pp. 238-44.

The rub is that while the available U.S. record on natural disasters is good by international standards, we find more research will be required to create a consistent series of disasters of comparable magnitudes. The bad news is that the FEMA has an online listing of major disaster declarations with the type of disaster and detailed location information only after 1964. And the other U.S. sources are not much better. The good news is that the archival records of FEMA’s predecessors (such as the Office of Civil Defense) held in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland allows one to push the official records back systematically into the early 1950s and in a more piecemeal way into the late 1940s. The records of the Small Business Administration provide enhanced coverage of lessor disasters. And more importantly, the voluminous files of the disaster relief efforts of the American National Red Cross, also held in the National Archives in College Park, allow one to create a database of disasters, covering type, detailed location, impact (including deaths and damage), and relief efforts (if any), back to the early 1920s. By combining data from these governmental and non-governmental sources and comparing the records with information from the National Weather Service and US Geological Survey, we can seek to create a comprehensive and consistent database on natural disasters extending over most of the 20th century. These data should be useful to graduate students and scholars exploring the effects of local-area shocks on a wide range of economic behaviors.