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Question: Was Hurricane Sandy, which touched ground in the United States a little over a month ago, a big disaster, or a little one? What about the 2012 flooding in the State of Alagoas? Would that qualify as a major disaster? Of course, it’s impossible to respond to these questions without considering some important facts. These include a thorough review of each disaster’s overall economic impact and total number of fatalities. To illustrate my point, I propose a short exercise:

“Sandy” devastated twelve states, killed more than 110 people and had an estimated economic impact of approximately US$50 billion (or roughly 2% of the affected region’s GDP). The hurricane was, without doubt, one of the most damaging natural events to strike the Eastern Seaboard in decades.

The flooding in Alagoas, on the other hand, killed 36 people and affected more than 270,000. In terms of fatalities, the State’s floodwaters were less pernicious than the fury of Hurricane Sandy, and ultimately less destructive than even the 2011 flooding of the Região Serrana in Rio de Janeiro. Based on these numbers, one might easily conclude that the 2012 flood in Alagoas was a “small disaster”.

However, a quick analysis of the event’s economic impact reveals Alagoas to have lost roughly R$1.85 billion (equivalent to 9% of the State’s GDP). For a notion of context, it’s worth remembering that Alagoas ranks 25th among 26 states and the Federal District in per-capita GDP (R$ 7,874.21). Seen from this perspective, the 2012 flooding in Alagoas was perhaps a bigger disaster than Hurricane Sandy.

Of course, I mean this as only a case in point. It remains critical for specialists to examine how future fatalities and economic losses might be avoided in the Eastern US. That said, these simple calculations illustrate that to understand the true impact of adverse natural events, we must strive to be especially attentive to the perspective of those individuals, economies, communities, cities, states and countries affected by disaster.

Still more important is to consider what actions, programs and public policies we can develop to reduce existing risks and encourage both citizens and societies to better prepare for adverse natural events.