A Complex Task in Tallying Sandy’s Death, Damage

By GEOFF MULVIHILL | October 26, 2013

Tracking the toll of a disaster like Superstorm Sandy is not like keeping score at a baseball game. Its damage to lives and property may never be known precisely, and there are multiple ways to tally it.

In the case of deaths, tracking is done in some places by state governments, and in some by counties, and without one standard as to whether a death is attributable to the storm.

The federal government has reported two different death totals from the Oct. 29, 2012, storm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, relying on data from the American Red Cross, counted 117. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration tally, which used local government figures and media accounts, was 159 caused directly or indirectly by the storm.

The Associated Press in September surveyed state, and in some cases, local governments along the storm’s path and got a different figure – 182 in the United States. A February report from the National Hurricane Center counted another 72 deaths in the Caribbean and one in Canada.

Any of the numbers would rank the storm as one of the 25 or so deadliest cyclones ever to hit the United States, but far behind earlier storms that killed hundreds or thousands.

David Dosa, a geriatrician at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Providence, R.I., and an associate professor at Brown University, said he has found from studying death records from storms including Katrina that the official numbers tend to undercount deaths.

“When you don’t know what a death is from, you quite often assume it came from something common like a coronary disease,” he said – even though the storm may have been a major factor.

Sandy was the first big storm in generations to hit the densely populated New York City area so hard. And the damage total is so high – $65 billion, according to a NOAA report – not necessarily because of the severity of the weather, but rather because of where it happened.

Damage calculations are constantly refined to add more detail, a factor that partly accounts for why more recent storms have higher damage amounts than those decades ago, even when inflation adjustments are made. For instance, until the 1990s, they did not include figures for business interruptions due to storms. And now, those figures are likely not complete.

Photo: Steve Zumwalt FEMA
Photo: Steve Zumwalt FEMA

That $65 billion price tag and other estimates of Sandy’s damage would rank the storm the second-costliest cyclone in the U.S. since 1900, even considering inflation. But it would fall lower by another measure.

Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, said the inflation-adjusted storm numbers tell more about how much wealthier the U.S. has become and how much its coasts have developed than how severe the weather is.

When models are used to figure out how much damage historic storms would have done if they had hit now, the $65 billion cost is no longer No. 2, but rather in the lower half of the top 10. Pielke said a hurricane that hit Miami in 1926 would have been worse, causing about four times as much damage as Sandy.

(AP news researchers Judith Ausuebel and Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.)

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