Archive for September 18th, 2004

Hurricane Ivan and the X-Rayed Water Bottle

Saturday, September 18th, 2004

The other night I was watching the Hurricane Ivan show on CNN. It consisted mostly of newscasters standing in the rain and wind right outside of their hotel room, while waiting for a large planter to blow over (I’ll avoid comment about reports being smart enough to come out of the rain, and observe that the individual covering Hurricane Ivan for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show also stood in blowing mist – outside a carwash – thus fulfilling the journalistic obligation to be soaked while reporting on a storm).

Today, on my way to a conference in Germany, I saw someone carry a clear plastic water bottle through security – only to have it taken back through the metal detector and run through the X-Ray (I confess to being at a loss to imagine what an X-Ray might see in that bottle that we couldn’t).

This got me thinking. We all know that we’re spending lots of money to defend against terrorism and to X-Ray water bottles. About 40 billion in 2003 (not counting the war in Iraq, whose relationship to homeland security is an interesting question in and of itself). I wondered how it compared to what we are spending on various other threats – like hurricanes.

This is certainly a bad year for hurricanes, though we don’t know yet how much they’ll really cost. But looking at NOAA data, it looks like hurricanes and other storms typically cost 5 to 10 billion each year. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was 27 billion (about the same as the direct costs of the 9/11 attacks). The NOAA budget is about 3.3 billion – that’s on all their activities, not just hurricane and storm tracking.

Terrorism though is worse than Hurricanes though. Why? Perhaps because it can strike at any time without warning.

So let’s consider earthquakes – they also can strike at any time without warning. I’m a California boy, and I got to ride the Loma Prieta quake (and trust me, “ride” is the operative word). That one cost about 6 billion. The Northridge quake cost 20 billion. The USGS annual budget is about 1 billion, of which 100 million or so goes to earthquake and volcano research and prediction.

But Terrorism is worse than earthquakes. Why? It kills more people (and why are we talking damage costs when lives are at stake anyway?)

World wide deaths from terrorism have been running under 4000/year (though increasing). The 9/11 attacks cost 2700 lives. Definitely more than have been killed by hurricanes are earthquakes (at least in the U.S.)

So let’s consider traffic accidents. In 2003 there were 42000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. (2.9 million injured). That’s more than killed by terrorism in the past decade. How much are we spending on high way safety? How does 3.6 billion sound?

But terrorism is worse than traffic accidents. Why? Because it has a greater risk of mass casualties due to possible use of weapons of mass destruction. But how much of that 40 billion is going towards controlling spread of nuclear weapons and detection, prevention and preparation for biological attack? I can’t help but wonder if that 40 billion is really being spent wisely.

There are some other things I wonder…

For example: I recently read that Afghanistan has become a leading export of Heroin and other drugs (70% of the world’s opium comes from there). I realize that the war on drugs has been preempted by the war on terrorism, but still, it’s hard for me to see that hunting for Bin-Laden is incompatible with getting a country out of the drug business.

And it does seem curious that Iraq seems to be developing into a new home and school for terrorists. I mean, freeing the Iraqis from Sadaam Hussein is all very nice, but exactly how did that make us more secure?

Anyway, these are some of the questions I’ve been wondering about. Not that I have any answers, but it did lead me to one thought I’d like to leave you with. Virtually all of the political discussion has related to Bush vs. Kerry as individuals (and what they may or may not have done 30+ years ago). Let’s remember that we aren’t just hiring a president – we’re hiring their staff. If you rehire Bush you get Cheny, Rumsfield, Ashcroft, Rice and maybe Powell in the bargain (it’s not clear if Powell’s staying on) – not to to mention the likelihood of a Supreme Court justice or two. With Kerry you get… Hmm… who do you get? Hopefully we’ll hear soon.

Ok, I’m out of questions. It’s raining outside, but I’m safe and warm in my hotel room, drinking water from a nice, safe, thoroughly X-Rayed bottle.

(P.S. it’s not really raining outside. That part is poetic license).


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
Center for Contemporary Conflict – U.S. Navy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
US Department of Transportation.
Congressional Hearing: Afghanistan Drugs and Terrorism and U.S. Security Policy Feb 12 2004.