Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Wednesday Math, Vol. 1: 9/11 and Katrina

As I have written many times before, I love math. The stuff I studied in grad school I might not be able to 'splain to folks, though I may give it a shot in later volumes. But I can give quick lessons trying to make sense of numbers as they occur in everyday life, as the pertain to decisions we are making, and that are being made for us, every day of our lives.

In this first post of my Wednesday series, I want to talk about numbers that literally are about life and death, the field of death statistics. In the United States, about 1% of the population dies every year, from all causes. If we want to split our specific causes, we need to use a scale more refined than percent (which is to say x% means x out of 100) so most death statistics are given as x out of 100,000.

For example, a few years back there were 97 murders in Oakland, California and 40 murders in nearby Richmond. As you might guess, Oakland is a bigger town than Richmond, nearly 400,000 to about 100,000. To put these numbers on the same scale, the Oakland murder rate is at 24 out of 100,000 and the Richmond murder rate is 40 out of 100,000. The national murder rate is about 5 per 100,000, so both of these cities have high rates, but Richmond's is significantly higher than Oakland's.

In New York City, the murder rate has been low over the past decade or so, at around 7 per 100,000. The number of deaths that took place on Sept. 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center would amortize to 34 per 100,000 population in the city of New York. Of course, not all the people who died that day in these two specific attacks were citizens of New York, but even the death of a tourist in New York counts as a crime in New York. If the acts of that day count as murders, New York's murder rate would jump up to over 40 per 100,000 for the year of 2001. In the U.S., very few cities of over 500,000 population have murder rates that high. Currently, only Baltimore, Maryland is on that particular shameful roll call.

The death toll from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is put at about 700 lives lost. That means the death rate from those few days is about 145 of 100,000. Katrina hit New Orleans four times harder than the World Trade Center disaster hit New York. Of course, New Orleans is much smaller than New York. Let's instead compare the toll in Louisiana, where 1,500 people lost their lives to the hurricane. The effect of the storm on the entire state is almost exactly equal to the effect of the twin towers falling in New York, 34 deaths for every 100,000 in population.

Some will say this is apples and oranges. I do not deny these are very different circumstances. I just wanted people to look at them in perspective. This is hard to do, because in terms of how we take in information in the 21st Century, the destruction of the twin towers was a perfectly planned media event. The first plane hits, it's breaking news, every TV station will cover it and have cameras on the scene, just in time for the second plane to hit. A clear act of malice, an attack not only on two buildings in New York but on all Americans.

Katrina, on the other hand, hits too vast an area to be encompassed by a single camera. Death hits people one by one and out of public view, many drowning in their own homes. Even the failure of the levees is not captured live on television.

9-11 is a clear act of malice and Katrina is an act of nature. But the deaths of Katrina are due also to malign neglect of the system of levees and wetlands, a system that should have been a clear national priority since Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965. It is not the failure of the current Bush administration. It is a failure of the administrations of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush the Mature, Clinton and Bush the Immature.

The failure of the response to the disaster can be laid at the footsteps of Bush the Immature, but we shouldn't forget the actions of the insurance companies, either. If you want to set aside four hours to be alternately sad and angry, you should watch Spike Lee's documentary When The Levees Broke. It isn't completely a downer. You will get to meet the Mississippi resident who told Dick Cheney to go fuck himself when the vile vice president decided to stage a photo op in this guy's neighborhood. And the music is excellent.

Let's move away from death rates to actual numbers of deaths for a moment. Think about a day when five times as many people die as did on 9/11. Now imagine four straight years of days that on average are that bad, sixteen seasons of daily misery on that unimaginable scale.

That is what World War II was like for the Russians. 20 million dead in a war that lasted about four years for them, when the Germans broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union.

Americans are so ready to fight wars because Americans haven't experienced war the way the rest of the world has.

That's the end of today's lesson. There is no homework assignment, but I hope you took notes.


jolie said...

well said, matty boy. this is a fresh way of looking at the mess this administration has lodged us in; and I especially appreciate the note on WWII.

thanks for your insights & good writing.

dguzman said...

I think I'll be doing some homework on my own on this lesson, sir. Thanks for the striking perspective.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the comments, y'all.

The next few Wednesday are going to be more about death statistics, trying to get a handle on what we get worked up about and larger problems we largely ignore.

FranIAm said...

Holy shite. Math I can understand. Heartbreaking math, but math I can understand.

Matty Boy said...

Thank, Fran. This is kind of a continuation of the "How important is presentation?" theme, except without lolz otters.

Nyc W. Alberts said...

Thanks Matt,

The man you see as my blogspot Avatar on the upper right of this comment is actually my Grandfather who survived the 1945 Valentine's Day Dresden firebombing that Vonnegut wrote about in Slaughter House V.

He's about my current age in that photo, but his hair has gone prematurely gray from shock because 200 members of my family were melted to death that day, or just about two-thirds the amount of firefighters that were fatally crushed when the towers pancaked on them on 9/!!.

That being said, this kind of math is catnip to me, and this is a great side by side comparison, and being that you are demonstrably skilled in this area, would it be too much to ask if you could tell me what percentage of 300 million people that 3,000 people would be?

It's a 9/!! question that has long bothered me, and you seem to be the right person that would know this.



PS: I found your site while looking for a picture of Elizabeth Kucinich wearing a Carmen Miranda fruit hat to the Democratic Spanish Debates, you wouldn't happen to have that bad boy handy, would you?

Matty Boy said...

Hi, Nyc. 3,000 out of 300,000,000 is 1 out of 100,000, or one thousandth of one percent.

I'll see if I can find the Miss Elizabeth in the hat picture.