Wednesday, September 14, 2005

800 or 10,000?

So in continuation of the Katrina saga – how is it that the estimate of 10,000 dead (yes, 10,000, that was the headline a few days ago…) has now dropped to about 800 or less? Isn’t it somewhat shocking that the counting was so way off?

By way of comparison, In 9/11 the ultimate count was within 25% of the starting estimate… Even in the Asian Tsunami the death toll was within about a factor of 4 (higher) than the original estimate (250,000 to 300,000). Not a factor of 10(!).

Which jogs my memory about another aspect of the Asian Tsunami. You probably remember that a high percentage of the dead in Thailand were vacationing Europeans. Well, just a week before the Tsunami, the week before Christmas, I was in Sweden to visit Ericsson. My first visit ever to Sweden. And in the Asian Tsunami, over 500(!) Swedes died. That’s out of a population of about 9 million. As a percentage of the population that would be the equivalent of 12,500 dead in a U.S. natural disaster. Hair-raising.

Another thing that comes to mind is an article I read recently about the Jenin “massacre” that wasn’t. In April 2002, after Israeli forces entered Jenin to uproot Palestinian terrorists, and after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in the collapse of a building there, word spread that Israeli forces had committed a massacre there, killing civilians and burying whole families under the rubble. This rumor was abetted by the fact that the Israeli army had decided that the situtation in Jenin was too dangerous to allow correspondants into the area. Faced with an information vacumn, foreign correspondants seized upon Palestinian statements that a massacre had occurred, that over 500 Palestinians had been killed. The Israeli army had not been counting Palestinian casualties, and when the army spokesman was asked how many Palestinians had been died, he estimated 250. And so the massacre story was substantiated.

Except that it wasn’t true. In the final count, the Paletinian dead amounted to 52. The Israeli army ultimately claimed that only five of them were civilians. I’m not commenting here about the Israeli presence in Jenin, but on how even the Israeli army was completely off in its estimate.

But back to New Orleans. I’m trying to figure out what this huge discrepency between casualty estimates and reality means…:

How does one estimate how many people were killed in a natural disaster? Well, first of all you try to estimate how many people could have been there in the first place. Granted, with New Orleans that was difficult. Second, you count how many people are reported missing. Third, you check a few buildings or a limited area and try to extrapolate. So what happened here? Well, seems like a combination of things:

1. The media threw out estimates with scant evidence.
2. No one at the institutional level even tried to make a reasonable estimate of missing people.
3. The poor of New Orleans are assumed to be nameless. No one even tried to estimate missing people through missing person reports.

I could add many more theories. I find the inept disaster response in New Orleans to be horrifying and in some respects downright criminal. As far as the errors in estimating the dead, it’s a combination of difficult circumstances, institutional ineptness, and media credulity. I’m somehow most bothered by the numbers that the media threw out, because they seem to bring into serious question the veracity, integrity, and utility of the established mainstream media.


At 7:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fine explanation, but naive. You overlook the fact that the most prominent and widely-quoted person who claimed there were "10,000 dead" was the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. His entire handling of the disaster has been systematically discredited. He clearly had an incentive to talk up, to exaggerate the number of dead to make the catastrophe seem far worse than it was, beyond his or any official's ability to manage.

Nagin's claim was then given enormous media play by places like the NY Times, which equally had an interest (bashing Bush) to inflate the numbers, and carry these wild estimates.

Always ask yourself: Who benefits? In this case, it's clear who benefitted most from propounding and then propagandizing these wildly-inflated figures.

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous beat me to it. I told everyone that I knew he was lying from the get-go, and it was so obvious I didn't know why the media didn't pick this up. But I notice when they quoted the number that at least some of them said it was a possibility, not a certainty.

I predicted about 200 deaths. I know it's beyond that now, but the numbers in the hospital and nursing homes have already been jacked up, as many of them were already corpses in the morgue!

I hadn't thought it was a way for the liberals to bash Bush. That's possible. I just thought it was jackass Nagin. And he should be fired immediately for every reason.

And everyone's treatment of the abandoned and starving animals is BEYOND evil. I have become an unwilling activist, calling the gov't every day on this.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger cosmopolitan life said...

Well, Nagin has emerged as the Teflon mayor...

At 6:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gee, why do you think that is, that Nagin is the teflon mayor? It couldn't be Political Correctness, now could it?

You might want to do a little looking around about the actions of the Louisiana black, Democratic Congressman William Jefferson. He too, oddly enough, has escaped any criticism, despite personally tying up the use of evacuation helicopters and army vehicles at a crucial time to remove his own personal belongings.

At 4:57 AM, Blogger Living in Thailand said...

We have a website that was created during the Tsunami please let us know if any people there is found and we will delete themAfter the Tsunami


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