An important challenge of natural hazards is that they inflict the greatest total economic damage in large, developed countries, where wealth is aggregated, but they create the greatest economic impact in smaller and developing countries, where a disaster caused by a natural hazard can easily overwhelm a national government’s ability to respond and its economy to recover. Thus, a common understanding in the literature is that the fiscal effect of a natural hazard is a function of the size of the disaster relative to the size of a nation’s economy at the time of the disaster. At the international level, the economic impact of disasters, for example, has been estimated to be US$2.9 trillion between 1998 and 2017, and approximately $945 billion of that occurred in the United States. With a 2019 gross domestic product (GDP) of $21 trillion, the total economic effect for those 20 years is close to 5% of the value of economic output for a single year. Developing country losses, on the other hand, can be overwhelming, especially as measured against the size of the economy. For example, Hurricane Maria’s impact on Dominica is estimated to have been approximately US$1.37 billion, which was equivalent to 225% of Dominica’s GDP. While an appreciation for the connection between the size of a national economy and natural hazards is clearly critical, the literature points to a number of additional factors that are important to understand about how government financial conditions are affected by natural hazards and vice versa. Debates continue about the role of foreign direct investment, government and private debt levels, investments in education, and internationally sponsored protective actions and insurance pools in improving the resilience of smaller and developing countries to disasters. For example, structural approaches to understanding the linkage between disasters and economic development suggest that countries with a limited number of sources of income have economies that are more vulnerable to disasters than more diversified economies, which might suggest that fiscal policies designed to increase economic diversity are important. Neoclassical approaches, on the other hand, argue that economic recovery is slowed by government intervention in the economy, and suggest that the best way for developing economies to recovery quickly is to reduce the amount of regulation in the economy. Whatever the theoretical approach, what remains most clear is the ongoing challenge of decoupling the emotional need to participate in responses to the human tragedy associated with disasters caused by natural hazards from the strategic imperative to invest in hazard mitigation at much higher rates globally and plan toward disaster risk reduction.
Comparative Public Finance Approaches to Natural Hazards Management
Mohammed Alkhurayyif, Julie Winkler, Simon Andrew, and Skip Krueger
Earthquakes in Political, Economic, and Cultural History
The immediate aftermath of a great urban earthquake is a dramatic and terrible event, comparable to a massive terrorist attack. Yet the shocking impact soon fades from the public mind and receives surprisingly little attention from historians, unlike wars and human atrocities. In 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake and its subsequent fires demolished most of Tokyo and Yokohama and killed around 140,000 Japanese: a level of devastation and fatalities comparable with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But the second event has infinitely more resonance in public consciousness and historical studies than the first. Indeed, most people would be challenged to name a single earthquake with an indisputable historical impact, including even the most famous of all earthquakes: the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. In truth, however, great earthquakes, from ancient times—as recorded by Greek and biblical writers—to the present day, have had major cultural, economic, and political consequences—often a combination of all three—some of which were beneficial. Thus, the current prime minister of India owes his election in 2014 to an earthquake that devastated part of his home state of Gujarat in 2001, which led to its striking economic growth. The martial law imposed on Tokyo and Yokohama after the 1923 earthquake gave new authority to the Japanese army, which eventually took over the Japanese government and led Japan to war with China and the world. The destruction of San Francisco in 1906 produced a boom in rebuilding and financial and technological development of the surrounding area on the San Andreas Fault, including what became Silicon Valley. A great earthquake in Venezuela in 1812 was the principal cause of the temporary defeat of its leader Simon Bolivar by the Spanish colonial regime, but his subsequent exile led to his permanent freeing of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela from Spanish rule. The catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755—as well known in the early 19th century as the 1945 atomic bombings are today—was a pivotal factor in the freeing of Enlightenment science from Catholic religious orthodoxy, as epitomized by Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, written in response to the earthquake. Even the minor earthquakes in Britain in 1750, the so-called Year of Earthquakes, produced the earliest scientific understanding of earthquakes, published by the Royal Society: the beginning of seismology. The long-term impact of a great earthquake depends on its epicenter, magnitude, and timing—and also on human factors: the political, social, intellectual, religious, and cultural resources specific to a region’s history. Each earthquake-struck society offers its own particular lesson, and yet, taken together, such earth-shattering events have important shared consequences for the history of the world.