Estimating the Cost of Disasters

Who throws the big numbers out there?

by Eric Holdeman / September 4, 2017

It does not take long before the media, in the midst of a disaster to ask the question, "How much damage has been done?" I have found it very interesting to watch Hurricane Harvey play out with the damage estimates going up and up. The first number tossed out early in the disaster while the rains were still falling was $30 billion in damages. Then as the rains ceased and the flooding continued, it went up to $100 billion in damages. Now over the weekend I've heard $130 billion in damages for Harvey. Just where do they get these numbers from? And, here is the newest update from Texas, the Governor there is saying they will need between $150B-$180B in federal assistance.

As emergency managers we know the process that is followed. In King County in the past we always ask citizens to call in and report their estimated losses (which certainly are guesses, in most cases). We plotted addresses on a map and tallied the totals. Eventually a team from FEMA and the State Emergency Management would show up for a "preliminary damage assessment." We would have internal staff and other governmental representatives take these officials around to areas that had the most damage so they could see the impact of the disaster on personal property and public infrastructure. All this would lead to a Presidential Disaster Declaration and then a more formal project-by-project damage estimate. Then, we'd have a much better estimate of the damages from a disaster.

All of the above is a far cry from someone "sticking their finger in the air" and pulling out a number from what in the military we called our "Fourth Point of Contact." Perhaps there is an algorithm somewhere that does this but I think it is unlikely for that to be the case.