If I hear one more politician or commentator call the Gulf oil spill the "worst natural diaster in American history," I'll scream. Maybe I'll get lucky -- we seem to be in the "It wasn't nearly as bad as it seemed" stage: (via Instapundit)
Michael Grunwald has written an article for Time arguing that the effects of the BP oil spill have not been as bad as initially feared. There's a phase in disasters--often quite long--when people start treating the worst-case scenarios as if they are the most likely scenarios. I suspect this is a bit of hard-wired evolutionary programming, and if you're a hunter-gatherer tribe at risk from disasters, this is probably quite useful.
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So it's not surprising that the actual effects we're seeing turn out to be not-so-bad as the projections. But of course sometimes they really are that bad--Haiti seems to be going worse, in some ways, than we expected. And Jonathan Adler sounds a very sensible note of caution about popping the champagne corks on the BP spill.
Both are exaggerated reactions. While the overreaction, as noted, can be useful for the safety of the race, the underreaction can help us course-correct our responses -- so we don't overreact too much the next time, spend too much, etc. They call journalism "the first draft of history" for a reason -- first drafts get a lot wrong.
When it comes to ranking disasters, I'd put those with longer-term effects higher on the list than some with worse immediate consequences. On this list from LiveScience, for example, I'd move Katrina at No. 2 ahead of Hurricane Galveston, which they list as No. 1; fewer people died in Katrina, but it changed a portion of the U.S. forever. But I'd move the Dust Bowl ahead of both of them, because it changed a bigger portion forever. And on this list of "man-made" disasters from Earth First, I'd move Three Mile Island (they have it fifth) to the top of the list. The immediate effects were near zero, but it was a big factor in the successful effort to stop the building of more nuclear power plants.