The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.
The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.
Postings are weekly.
As we witness another hurricane hit the U.S. mainland, we recount our own region's past disasters and lessons we have learned regarding the economic impact of these events. It was six years ago that Hurricane Katrina struck, and we have written about that experience in past posts. Data are still coming in, but it appears that while flooding associated with Hurricane Irene caused severe damage in several areas, destruction was not as bad as many had forecast. Looking back at previous disasters can help us understand what lies ahead in terms of the economic impact of Irene.
In the Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics blog, Conor Dougherty writes that:
"Areas hit by some of the biggest natural disasters have in many cases recouped the economic losses in the form of federal aid and insurance payments, according to data from Moody's Analytics and the Insurance Information Institute. Here's a chart of past disasters, their cost and the eventual tally of aid and insurance payments.
"Hurricane Katrina, which hit in August 2005, has been by far the most costly natural disaster in recent history, resulting in $140 billion in damage and lost output. (That figure is in 2011 dollars and does not include the impact of higher energy prices after the storm.) But over the following months and years, businesses, residents and governments in the area collected a total $149.2 billion in aid and insurance payouts.
"There is no dollar figure that can be attached to the loss of life, emotional toll and massive loss of population that lingers six years later. But with Hurricane Irene barreling down on the Eastern seaboard, it's worth noting the damage of lost property and output is often made up in the end."
A recent Brookings Institution publication, Resilience and Opportunity Lessons from the U.S. Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita, makes another point about economic recovery from natural disasters:
"Opportunity is a critical component of post-disaster recovery. It is defined by the extent to which a community uses a disaster as an occasion not simply to return to normal but also to achieve a new and better standard of living."
What is the Fed's role in helping the economy recover from natural disasters? The first response is through our role in the payments system. Federal Reserve officials helped to ensure the country's payments and financial systems get back online as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Atlanta Fed's response to Hurricane Katrina is one example.
Our superb economic education staff also used Hurricane Katrina to develop a financial and economic education tool in Katrina's Classroom: Financial Lessons from a Hurricane. The program is a four-chapter, DVD-based curriculum developed to help people prepare for disasters and recover from them.
Another question to be addressed in the wake of a natural disaster is what the role of monetary policy should be. Again, looking back to Katrina, the discussion was primarily about the potential impact on overall economic activity and inflation from reduced oil supply and transportation disruptions on the Mississippi River. At the Atlanta Fed, the view was that trying to mitigate a temporary supply shock by easing policy may have adverse implications for the economy down the road. Some economic research goes so far as to suggest policy should tighten in response of temporary supply disruptions from disasters. In 2007, the St. Louis Fed published a study, "Monetary Policy and Natural Disasters in a DSGE Model: How Should the Fed Have Responded to Hurricane Katrina?" Authors Benjamin D. Keen and Michael R. Pakko wrote:
"In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, speculation arose that the Federal Reserve might respond by easing monetary policy. This paper uses a dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) model to investigate the appropriate monetary policy response to a natural disaster. We show that … a nominal interest rate increase following a disaster mitigates both temporary inflation effects and output distortions that are attributable to nominal rigidities."
Similar to how hurricane forecasters have improved their models by taking advantage of past experience and applying lessons learned, economic forecasters are also trying to improve their understanding of the economic effects of disasters and the optimal policy responses.
By Mike Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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Thoughts on Hurricane Katrina, five years later
An anniversary is a time of reflection and a time of planning for the future. We marked the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina a few days ago. My first thoughts of reflection go back to the morning when the storm came in. I had planned to get to work early, knowing I would spend the day doing various economic assessments of what damage the hurricane had wrought. But I first had to deal with a disaster of my own. My 9-year-old daughter had left the faucet running into a plugged sink in our upstairs bathroom. Our entire downstairs was flooded. As we did what we could to begin the cleanup, I watched the radar image of Katrina come on land from my wet, but safe, home outside Atlanta. What I would see that day would put our little problem in perspective.
By the time I got into work Katrina was well ashore. It seemed pretty clear that the Mississippi coast had borne the brunt of the storm and New Orleans had been spared a direct hit. As we began to develop briefing materials for the Bank's senior officers, news reports began to roll in describing the devastation in Biloxi, Gulfport, and Pass Christian. We also saw pictures of the damage in New Orleans—hotel windows missing and the torn fabric atop the Superdome. I wrote in one of my first communications of the day that "In New Orleans, structural damage appears severe in places but not catastrophic."
It wasn't until later that day that we began to hear that there was flooding in the Big Easy. From Atlanta, we figured it was the effects of the storm surge through the wetlands bordering St. Bernard Parish, and maybe levees were overtopped. All hurricanes bring storm surge and some flooding, so we didn't think too much of it, to be honest. We were focused on getting damage assessments from the Gulf's energy infrastructure, which we would find out were severe.
Then I read a newswire report that several levees in New Orleans had given way. I had watched a TV special about how New Orleans was vulnerable to hurricane-induced levee breaches, but the storms they described hit New Orleans head on; Katrina had missed to the east. It still didn't register. Then we saw the first photos. The entire city was flooding. It was clear we were dealing with a disaster we were told could happen, but none of us believed it would ever really happen. But it was happening, and like all Americans we felt helpless.
That was five years ago, but we can all remember watching the tragedy unfold like it was yesterday. I remember worrying about my colleagues in our New Orleans office, about the friends I had in Mississippi, and how we could ever be expected to go about our work in trying to measure the impact on the economy in what was clearly an immeasurable human catastrophe.
The response of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to Hurricane Katrina is documented in our 2005 Annual Report and in several articles and presentations made in the days and months following the event. In the Research Department, we became unwilling experts in disaster economics, never forgetting the heartbreak and human toll of Katrina. The Brookings Institute performed similar exercises, and their latest work is an outstanding look back, and also a look ahead.
I'm fortunate that my work takes me to New Orleans several times a year. I've been able to witness the city's slow but steady recovery and have met some of this country's best and strongest citizens. I've viewed the restoration along the Mississippi coast with awe.
When the most dire predictions were being made regarding the impact of the oil spill, I thought back to Katrina and how these people bounced back with pride and dignity.
As the people who survived and rebuilt five years ago reflect on and plan for the future, I had one recurring thought—not one measured by any economic time series or accounted for in any econometric model. No matter what my friends along the Gulf Coast and New Orleans may face, I wouldn't bet against them. Ever.
By Michael Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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