Figure 1: Disaster giving over the last decade. Click to enlarge.

I wanted to follow on Monday's post about the fundraising results from Hurricane Sandy. If you remember, some observers have commented on the fact that the overall donations generated following Sandy have fallen far short of other recent disasters.

Let's first take a look at the fundraising results we looked at on Monday. Figure 1 shows the results of post-disaster fundraising from five recent disasters: the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and Hurricane Sandy. The numbers estimate U.S. private giving three weeks after each disaster.

Setting aside for a moment the tragic thought that there seem to be an increasing number of severe natural disasters, we can see that yes, there does appear to be a downward trend in response. Note that I did not access primary data for the graph, and so there are likely to be inevitable inconsistencies in how the numbers were measured. In fact, I can guarantee we're not looking at a strictly apples-to-apples comparison. But we're interested in order of magnitude, and in that sense we can see that both Hurricane Sandy and the Japan earthquake and tsunami seem to have inspired notably less generosity from the U.S. than the other three disasters.

But is that the whole story? Is giving perhaps related to the overall scale of the disaster?

This is where we find ourselves on tricky ground both ethically and empirically. From an impact standpoint, scale is certainly a matter of perspective. Even one lost home, pet, or loved one is heartbreaking. How can we quantify physical loss and emotional pain? If your heart aches, it aches. 

On the data side, we're on equally rocky footing. I attempted to see if I could quantify the scale of each disaster in economic cost. Given enough time, I could probably find the correct sources and create normalized data -- but I can tell you it does not appear to be an easy task. For example, the economic loss from Katrina is estimated to be far higher than that of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami -- in large part because of the amount of development on the Gulf Coast as opposed to that in rural India. But does that make Hurricane Katrina more tragic?

Figure 2. Disaster impact as measured in overall loss of life. Click to enlarge.

What if we turn to a more verifiable -- and macabre -- statistic: Number of deaths. These statistics are, sadly, very easy to find. And, without sounding crass, they do not need to be indexed for inflation. Figure 2 presents total confirmed deaths attributed to each disaster.

What do we see? Well, we see a different picture. It's hard not to be struck by the enormity of the crises in the Indian Ocean and Haiti. Again, this is not to say that the other disaster weren't crises; our attempt here is to find a way to compare the relative impact. The overall loss of life from the disasters in the U.S. was far less than the disasters in other parts of the world. 

Figure 3. U.S. giving as compared to loss of life. Click to enlarge.

Now let's go back to the giving numbers. We now have enough information to take our data analysis one level deeper. Figure 3 shows a basic scatterplot of U.S. giving as compared to overall loss of life. In this admittedly very small dataset we can see we have two groupings: A linear trend for overseas disasters, and a separate, very steep cluster for the U.S. disasters. 

All of which takes us to figure 4, which shows dollars donated per death. From this graph we can see that on a relative sense, the response to Hurricane Sandy is the most generous by far. It is a grisly metric, to be sure -- and let me say once again that I in no way mean to imply that some losses are more important than others.

What I am trying to do is show that the truth is often in the interpretation. In matters of giving data, as in most things, it is worth doing a bit more digging before deciding you have the whole picture. I don't contend that figure 4 is the whole story, either -- but it is a valuable addition to the discussion.

Figure 4. Donations per death. Click to enlarge. 

For my part, I do not believe that our country is less generous, or less responsive, or weary of providing relief. I believe that people give according to the perceived scale of the impact. At least on this  measure, the response to Hurricane Sandy has been laudable. At a time of political weariness, economic sluggishness, and sustained appeals for help, we continue to respond to the call.