Lesson 2: When Disaster Strikes, What Can Markets Do?

Lesson 2: When Disaster Strikes, What Can Markets Do?


  • scarcity
  • supply
  • demand
  • price
  • supply shock
  • consumption shock
  • price controls
  • determinants of supply
  • determinants of demand
  • price gouging
  • incentive

Content Standards

Standard 3: Different methods can be used to allocate goods and services. People, acting individually or collectively through government, must choose which methods to use to allocate different kinds of goods and services.

Benchmarks: Grade 12

  • Comparing the benefits and costs of different allocation methods in order to choose the method that is most appropriate for some specific problem can result in more effective allocations and a more effective overall allocation system.

Standard 4: People respond predictably to positive and negative incentives.

Benchmarks: Grade 8

  • Changes in incentives cause people to change their behavior in predictable ways.

Standard 8: Prices send signals and provide incentives to buyers and sellers. When supply or demand changes, market prices adjust, affecting incentives.

Benchmarks: Grade 8

  • An increase in the price of a good or service encourages people to look for substitutes, causing the quantity demanded to decrease and vice versa. This inverse relationship between price and quantity demanded, known as the law of demand, exists as long as other factors influencing demand do not change.
  • An increase in the price of a good or service enables producers to cover higher per-unit costs and earn profits, causing the quantity supplied to increase and vice versa. This relationship between price and quantity supplied is normally true as long as other factors influencing costs of production and supply do not change.
  • Scarce goods and service are allocated in a market economy through the influence of prices on production and consumption decisions.

Grade 12:

  • Demand for a product changes when there is a change in consumers’ incomes or preferences, in the prices of related goods or services, or in the number of consumers in a market.
  • Supply of a product changes when there are changes in the prices of the productive resources used to make the good or service, the technology used to make the good or service, the profit opportunities available to producers by selling other goods or services, or the number of sellers in a market.
  • Changes in supply or demand cause relative prices to change; in turn, buyers and sellers adjust their purchase and sales decisions.
  • Government-enforced price ceilings set below the market clearing price and government-enforced price floors set above the market clearing price distort price signals and incentives to producers and consumers. The price ceilings cause persistent shortages, while the price floors cause persistent surpluses.

Standard 9: Competition among sellers lowers costs and prices and encourages producers to produce more of what consumers are willing and able to buy. Competition among buyers increases prices and allocates goods and service to those people who are willing and able to pay the most for them.

Benchmarks: Grade 8

  • Competition among buyers of a product results in higher product prices.

Grade 12:

  • The pursuit of self-interest in competitive markets generally leads to choices and behavior that also promote the national level of economic well-being.

Lesson Overview

Lesson 1 defined the economic impact of disasters as essentially a step backward in the human struggle to satisfy an ever-growing list of wants and needs with limited resources. Having conceptualized the problem in general terms, we proceed to examine the institutional tools available to societies and nations to deal with the blows that nature occasionally deals us. In this lesson we focus on the economic institution of markets, asking what markets can – and can not – do in the event of a disaster. Examples from historical (the Great Chicago Fire of 1871) and recent (the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005) disasters illustrate the economic analysis.

To perhaps a greater extent than is common in FTE curriculum materials, this lesson incorporates a traditional tool of economic analysis, supply and demand graphs. Teachers are reminded, however, that graphs are no more than tools. The economic reasoning modeled in supply and demand graphs does not depend on the graphs, nor do we consider the graphs necessary to teaching about the economics of disasters. The economic way of thinking can be modeled just as effectively by written explanation or, as the late economist Paul Heyne advocated, by “telling a plausible story.” Recognizing that graphs are commonly used in economic analysis, we have incorporated them here to provide the opportunity to practice applying the tool to problems other than the fictitious examples in end-of-chapter assignments.

By asking what markets can do, this lesson is also asking, by implication, what markets cannot do and what tasks are better left to other institutions. The disaster-related roles of governmental and charitable institutions are the subjects, respectively, of Lessons 3 and 4.


Price-Gouging Computer simulation

Key Points

1. The advantages of rationing by markets are evidenced by the relative wealth of nations with market economies and by their resilience in adversity.

  • Scarcity requires rationing. The basic question an economy must answer is not whether to ration but which method of rationing uses resources in such a way as to satisfy the most wants and needs.
  • Tradition and experience have established markets as the method of rationing most goods and services in developed economies like the United States.
  • The advantages of market-based rationing include:

1) Markets direct resources to their most highly valued uses, and

2) Markets encourage the least-cost uses of resources, including human time and effort.

  • Markets’ ability to direct resources to their most highly-valued, least-cost uses is of heightened importance during natural disasters, where conditions produce a sudden increase in scarcity.

2. Disasters do increase scarcity (as we saw in Lesson 1), but they do not reduce the ability of markets to respond to scarcity.

  • Markets respond to scarcity through decentralized communication of dispersed knowledge, eliminating the problems associated with centralized collection and analysis of massive amounts of rapidly changing information.
  • Austrian economist Frederich von Hayek defined the central task of economic systems as that of “. . . rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place,” and identified two characteristics that make markets so successful in doing so. (The Use of Knowledge in Society, 524)
  • First, von Hayek pointed out that while information about the “particular circumstances of time and place” is localized and widely dispersed, economic decision-makers actually need only some of that information to be successful producers.
“. . . [T]he ‘man on the spot’ cannot decide solely on the basis of his limited but intimate knowledge of the facts of his immediate surroundings. There still remains the problem of communicating to him such further information as he needs to fit his decisions into the whole pattern of changes of the larger economic system.

How much knowledge does he need to do so successfully? Which of the events which happen beyond the horizon of his immediate knowledge are of relevance to his immediate decision, and how much of them need he know?

There is hardly anything that happens anywhere in the world that might not have an effect on the decision he ought to make. But he need not know of these events as such, nor of all their effects. It does not matter for him why at the particular moment more screws of one size than of another are wanted, why paper bags are more readily available than canvas bags, or why skilled labor, or particular machine tools, have for the moment become more difficult to acquire. All that is significant for him is how much more or less difficult to procure they have become compared with other things with which he is also concerned, or how much more or less urgently wanted are the alternative things he produces or uses.” (Hayek, 525)

  • Second, he explained that price is the signal that transfers pertinent and necessary information throughout the economy.
“Fundamentally, in a system where the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices . . . act to coordinate the separate actions of many different people. . . . It is worth contemplating for a moment a very simple and commonplace instance of the action of the price system to see what precisely it accomplishes. Assume that somewhere in the world a new opportunity for the use of some raw materials, say tin, has arisen, or that one of the sources of supply of tin has been eliminated. It does not matter . . . which of these two causes has made tin more scarce. All that the users of tin need to know is [what the higher price tells them—] that some of the tin they used to consume is now more profitably employed elsewhere, and that in consequence they must economize tin. There is no need for the great majority of them even to know where the more urgent need has arisen, or in favor of what other needs they ought to husband the supply. If only some of them know directly of the new demand, and switch resources over to it, and if the people who are aware of the new gap thus created in turn fill it from still other sources, the effect will rapidly spread throughout the whole economic system and influence not only all the uses of tin, but also those of its substitutes and the substitutes of these substitutes, the supply of all the things made of tin, and their substitutes, and so on; and all this without the great majority of those instrumental in bringing about these substitutions knowing anything at all about the original cause of these changes. The whole acts as one market, not because any of its members survey the whole field, but because their limited individual fields of vision sufficiently overlap so that through many intermediaries the relevant information is communicated to all.” (Hayek, 526)
  • We might well argue that natural disasters give new urgency to the need for “rapid adaptation to change,” but they certainly do not alter the fundamental task of coordinating localized, widely dispersed information that Hayek identified.
  • The allocation task may be more urgent or of greater magnitude during disasters, but it remains fundamentally the same task we routinely trust markets to perform to our great advantage.
“The continuous flow of goods and services is maintained by constant deliberate adjustments, by new dispositions made every day in the light of circumstances not known the day before, by B stepping in at once when A fails to deliver. Even the large and highly mechanized plant keeps going largely because of an environment upon which it can draw for all sorts of unexpected [emphasis added] needs; tiles for its roof, stationery for its forms, and all the thousand and one kinds of equipment in which it cannot be self-contained . . . .” (Hayek, 524)

3. Prices communicate the information and provide the incentives to mitigate the impact of supply shocks caused by natural disasters.

  • “Supply shock” occurs when disasters interrupt or destroy the goods and services – housing, electricity, water, and gasoline, for example – that people rely on in everyday life.
  • In economic terms, a supply shock is a shift in supply, which is illustrated graphically by a moving the supply curve to the left, from Sbefore to Safter:
    • The story this picture tells us is that less is available, regardless of the price – or at every price. Intuitively, this makes sense. If a hurricane devastates a city and surrounding regions, there is less housing available in every price range.
    • Because people in the community still have a demand for housing, the change in supply causes an increase in the price of housing.
    • Importantly, rationing the now more-limited housing by price communicates two important pieces of information that help society cope with the increased scarcity imposed by the disaster.
    • First, the higher price acts as an incentive for consumers to conserve. For example, an extended family with two or three damaged houses may decide to crowd together in one rental house or apartment after the storm to keep expenses down.
    • Second, higher prices call into the market housing that was not available at lower prices. People may decide to rent spare rooms, empty apartments above garages, or travel trailers normally parked in storage, for example.

Case Study:

The Gasoline Market Coped with Supply Shock after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

(Please see the entry in the “Catalog of Disasters” addendum to the Introduction for an overview of the economic impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.)


The crude oil refining industry in the U.S. was running at almost peak capacity before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Additionally, Hurricane Katrina struck just before the Labor Day weekend, traditionally a period of peak demand in the U.S. gasoline market. As the devastation from Katrina became apparent, media reports sparked fears of a “gasoline crisis,” fears that surfaced again with news coverage of the clogged highways, abandoned cars, and closed gas stations that greeted motorists fleeing Houston as Hurricane Rita approached.

Certainly, the hurricane damage was significant. A 2006 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas summarizes the combined impact of Hurricanes Katrina (August 29, 2005) and Rita (September 24, 2005) on the Gulf Coast crude oil refining industry and on the U.S. gasoline market.

“Figure 1 shows the total crude refining capacity (in barrels per day) closed down on the Gulf Coast in the days following Hurricane Katrina’s Aug. 29 landfall and through the remainder of 2005.[1] At the peak of the closures, as Hurricane Rita moved through the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 24, capacity of nearly 5 million barrels per day—about 70 percent of Gulf Coast capacity—was briefly shut down. At the same time, crude capacity of another 500,000-750,000 barrels per day was operating under reduced runs as a precaution, due to damage or because of a lack of feedstock. Entering 2006, two New Orleans refineries and the large BP refinery in Houston were still closed for repairs, representing a combined capacity of 804,000 barrels per day still out of service.

“The resulting fall in gasoline production was felt widely in U.S. and global markets. Gasoline prices peaked at $3.12 per gallon nationwide the week after Katrina made landfall. Over the next 10 weeks, U.S. gasoline prices averaged 51 cents per gallon more than during the prior 10 weeks.” (Source Link)

Quite simply, the feared gas crunch did not happen. There was no widespread, debilitating shortage of gasoline, and despite isolated reports of $4 and $6/gal., the U.S. generally experienced little disruption – and certainly nothing that could be called a gasoline “crisis.” Within two months gasoline prices were back on a downward track that would take them to historic lows. At year’s end, three refineries (two in New Orleans and one in Houston) that normally produced over 800,000 barrels per day were still closed, and gasoline prices continued downward.

Analysis: What happened to avert a shortage after a massive supply shock took out up to a quarter of daily supply in a country famously dependent on oil and gasoline?

The market sent out signals, in the form of prices, and the behavior of producers and consumers changed in response to the prices.

The Dallas Fed looked at data from three time periods: ten weeks before Katrina, ten weeks of “emergency” (from the date of Katrina and including the date of Rita) and ten weeks after Katrina. The comparison of production with foreign imports and exports in the Gulf Coast region and in the rest of the U.S. is summarized in the table below:

Effect of the Hurricanes on U.S. Gasoline Supplies

(thousands of barrels per day in each period)

Gulf Coast Rest of U.S.


Before & After During Emergency Before & After

Total Gasoline

3,121.9 3,564.0 5,008.6 4,832.0

Total Gasoline

223.7 71.2 978.1 950.3

Total Gasoline

93.0 144.6 10.6 11.7
Changes in Inventories

Total Gasoline

-23.8 12.1 67.4 -78.8
  • The data show that as production declined on the Gulf Coast production increased elsewhere in the U.S., which the Fed explains as a response to higher prices.

“On the Gulf Coast, average gasoline output during the emergency was reduced by 442,000 barrels per day, or 12.4% below the 10-week averages before and after the storms. In the rest of the U.S., gasoline production rose by an average of 177,000 barrels per day, or 3.7% . . . in response to price incentives . . . .” [emphasis added]

  • The Fed also concluded that price signals also attracted imports of gasoline from overseas, and attracted it to the Gulf Coast, not New York City, where most gasoline imports enter the U.S.

“In the 10 weeks before and after the storms, over 90 percent of U.S. gasoline imports . . . entered states outside the Gulf Coast, especially through New York Harbor. These imports rose only 2.9 percent in the rest of the U.S. . . . [but more] dramatic changes were observed on the Gulf Coast, where gasoline imports nearly tripled during the emergency.”

  • ·Exports from the Gulf Coast decreased:

“Although gasoline exports represent a relatively small portion of total Gulf Coast production, they make up over 90 percent of U.S. gasoline exports. . . . During the emergency period, exports from the Gulf Coast fell by 51,600 barrels per day (35.7 percent), adding to Gulf Coast gasoline supplies.” [emphasis added]

  • And, finally, companies took gasoline out of inventory to supply their stations. Before and after the storm, Gulf Coast refineries tended to add about 12,000 bpd to their inventories. During the storm emergency period, they were taking out about 28,300 bpd and sending them to gas stations. (The rest of the country reacted to the storms by building up their inventories, which, the Fed notes, has become a characteristic reaction to uncertainty by the U.S. oil market.)
  • Summary: The Fed study showed that the biggest factors offsetting the drop in Gulf Coast gasoline production were an increase in imports and a decrease in exports.

Analysis: Why did the shifts in imports, exports, and inventories take place?

  • The Fed study further investigated the question of what drew additional imports to the U.S. during the emergency, and concluded there were two determining factors:
      • 1) price change, and
      • 2) waivers of environmental requirements.
  • The Fed looked at the gasoline price differential between the Gulf Coast of the U.S. and Rotterdam, a major international oil trading center. During the ten weeks of the emergency, the price on the Gulf Coast, which is normally $.88/barrel higher than Rotterdam, soared to $8.03 higher. The statistical analysis indicates that this price differential was responsible for about 1/3 of the additional imports.
  • The remainder of the import increase was found to be the result of the Environmental Protection Agency temporarily suspending regulations that greatly raise costs of production for foreign producers of gasoline. In effect, the EPA stepped out of the way of the market for ten weeks. EPA regulations raise production costs, creating incentives for foreign producers* to by-pass the U.S. in favor of markets without or with less-costly environmental restrictions. During the ten weeks in which the EPA restrictions were suspended and foreign producers did not have to bear the costs of meeting the regulations, it was profitable enough for them to sell in the American market.
  • (*The majority of additional imports came from Europe, Canada, and South America. For a spreadsheet showing amounts by country, see U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “U.S. Net Imports by Country,” Source Link )

With the regulations suspended, changing market prices ensured that, even in emergency, goods, services, and resources were allocated to their most valuable uses. Signals – in the form of price and profit potential – went out to gasoline producers and they responded by diverting their products to the Gulf Coast. When the emergency period passed, the falling prices – and the re-imposition of costly EPA regulations – caused producers to return to their pre-disaster allocation patterns.


Bradley, Robert L., Jr. and Thomas Tanton. “Motor Fuels and Natural Disasters: Don’t Regulate.” ALEC Policy Forum, Winter 2005 American Legislative Exchange Council. October 24, 2005 http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/TantonPriceGouging.final.pdf (04-3-07)

“In the Eye of the Storm: Gasoline Markets After the Hurricanes.” June, 2006 Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Houston Branch. Houston Business – A Perspective on the Houston Economy http://www.dallasfed.org/research/houston/2006/hb0602.html

Salinger, Michael A., Director, Bureau of Economics, Federal Trade Commission. “Moneyball and Price Gouging.” Address to Antitrust Committee of Boston Bar Association, Boston, MA. Feb 27, 2006. http://www.ftc.gov/speeches/salinger/060227MoneyballandPriceGouging.pdf

  • The gasoline suppliers’ response to Hurricane Katrina reinforces Hayek’s insight about markets’ superior ability to adjust to changes in scarcity. It was not necessary for anyone to know how much gas refining capacity was damaged, how much gasoline was still available, or how many people needed gas for their cars. The changing prices in the market communicated the relative scarcities and provided the information necessary for the market to allocate the amounts available in a way that best met needs in those particular circumstances.

4. Prices also communicate the information and provide the incentives to mitigate the impact of consumption shocks caused by natural disasters.

  • After a disaster, people frequently clamor for particular goods and services that they do not routinely purchase, from mundane items like ice and plywood to major items like chain saws and generators.
  • In economic terms, these sudden increases in the demand for particular goods and services are demand shifts caused by changes in the prices of substitutes – ice for refrigeration and plywood for window glass, for example.
  • On the graph below, consumption shock is illustrated by the rightward shift of the demand curve, from Dbefore to Dafter:
  • The story this picture tells us is that people generally are willing to pay more. Intuitively, this makes sense.People who did not buy plywood before the storm now find it a good substitute for extremely scarce and very expensive window glass.
  • Additionally, if the natural disaster was unanticipated or gave very little warning, then the supply of things like ice, plywood, and generators immediately after the disaster is what the supply was before the disaster. As people substitute these products for refrigeration, glass, and other sources of electricity, competition for the substitute items increases.
  • Instead of one person wandering into the lumber yard to buy a sheet of plywood on Saturday morning, there may be hundreds; and one way they compete with each other is by being willing to pay more.
  • As the graph illustrates, those people who are willing to pay the higher price will have their demand satisfied.
  • It is important to remember that people’s willingness to pay the higher price is determined by a variety of factors, only one of which is their income.
  • As in non-disaster markets, people make choices about what is most important, and they allocate their limited resources to satisfy those wants they consider most important.
  • Like a supply shock, a demand shock is addressed by price signals that not only communicate information but also provide incentives that change people’s behavior in markets. The higher prices that accompany consumption shock encourage consumers to purchase less – which is a good thing given the suddenly greater relative scarcity.
  • In the aftermath of disaster, pricing, unlike other methods of rationing, helps people evaluate their own needs realistically, helps to reduce waste, and helps to insure that more people’s wants are satisfied.
  • Consider ice to preserve food and medicine after a hurricane, for example. If ice is rationed by standing in line, then once the initial cost of a single ice cube is borne – the time it takes to get to the front of the line – there is no additional cost for more ice. Filling up numerous ice chests, “just in case,” is rational and should be expected. If, however, people must purchase ice by the bag – and the price of a bag of ice has risen to reflect the greater scarcity, people have an incentive to weigh the value of additional ice against the value of other things they want. The likely result is that each person will purchase less and more people will be able to purchase some ice.
  • Pricing also helps to address the knowledge problem that von Hayek identified. The argument, for example, that we could solve the problem of distributing ice by imposing a limit on the number of bags of ice each person is allowed to buy rests on the faulty premise that someone, somehow will be able to figure out the “right” amount. How will those in charge know how critical ice is to you – whether you are using it to keep life-saving medicine cool, chilling your soda, or bathing your sunburned feet after a day on the beach?
  • The U.S. Federal Trade Commission reports that rising prices in the aftermath of natural disaster reduce the incidence of hoarding, an understandable consumer response to the uncertainty created by the disaster but one that reduces the number of people who can purchase the desired product.
. . . [W]hen there is a threat of a disaster, people will rush to the gas station to fill up. They might, if they think they have time, rush to Home Depot to buy a few containers to store gasoline in. Lines at gas stations will be long. Not only will these lines waste precious time, but the supplies will run out. Those who get to the gasoline station too late will find no gas available. Some of these people will be unable to evacuate. Others will try to get as far as they can and run out of gas on the road, possibly clogging escape routes, thus exacerbating the catastrophe.

This is not mere economic theorizing. Hoarding behavior is real. One might think that when a shortage looms, the governor of the state or perhaps the President should urge people not to stock up unnecessarily. . . . When politicians say, ‘There is no reason to stock up,’ citizens hear, ‘There is every reason to stock up.’

. . . [However, if the price of gasoline rises] . . . individuals have an incentive to buy just the gasoline they really need rather than to make sure to have a full tank in every car and a few gallons of inventory to boot. Of course, each individual choice to limit gasoline purchases is undetectable within the broader market. Magnify that choice over a substantial fraction of consumers in an area and the effect can make the difference between the maintenance of social order and chaos.” (Salinger, 3)

  • As with the supply shift, note that when a consumption shock occurs, it is not necessary for any one person to know how much ice and plywood are needed or how long until the electricity is restored in the disaster area. The changing prices communicate the changing scarcities and provide all the information necessary for people to make the best decisions for themselves and for the market.

5. While prices function in markets to communicate information, competition prepares businesses to respond to disasters, and self-interest and the profit motive provide reliable incentives for them to do so.

  • Competition is a constant presence in the world of business, and the ongoing experience of successful competition prepares businesses to adapt to changing circumstances. Johanna Schneider, executive director at the Business Roundtable, comments: “What companies do is solve problems.” In that sense, disaster response is “business as usual,” in the pursuit of profit. (Private FEMA, 2)
  • The incentive to problem solve in the wake of disaster is heightened by the reality that the early responders stand to make the most profit. The potential rewards for quick response can even be large enough to provide strong incentives for some producers to invest in knowledge about potential disasters and to risk preparation for the next disaster, without knowing what it will be or where it will strike.
  • “The first business to a disaster area with provisions for victims stands to benefit handsomely from beating others to the disaster zone. Even private non-profit organizations have a strong incentive to identify disasters quickly. The faster they are on location to help those in need, the more likely are potential charitable contributors to give additional money to their organization.” (Sobel & Leeson , 10)
  • The competitive response can take a variety of forms, including those that, paradoxically, would seem to knowingly forego profit.
  • Within 2 weeks of Hurricane Katrina, corporate relief donations exceeded $200 million. Companies also suspended finance payments on cars and mortgages and donated supplies, equipment, and personnel.
  • Wal-Mart donations totaled over $20 million, “. . . $1 million in cash to the Salvation Army to help with activities such as providing 400,000 meals per day and portable showers, and another $1 million in cash to the American Red Cross to run their shelters, . . . $15 million . . . for other relief efforts . . . [and] truckloads of supplies such as water and ice to the emergency services in [the disaster zone]. (Konig)
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce set up a computer registry for relief supply needs. Donor companies logged into the registry to search for specific orders their expertise allowed them to fulfill.
  • IBM set up a computerized job bank for those who lost jobs because of the hurricane.
  • Firms in the pharmaceutical industry donated more than $9 million in cash and supplies of antibiotics, insulin, and toiletry kits. Eli Lilly & Co. sent a private jet with doctors, antibiotics, tetanus shots, and insulin to the Gulf Coast within a week of the hurricane.
  • The American Trucking Association provided updated road condition information to companies moving supplies into the area.


Barbaro, Michael and Justin Gillis. “Wal-Mart at Forefront of Hurricane Relief.” The Washington Post, September 6, 2005. p. D01. Source Link (3-28-07)

Ed. “Private FEMA – In Katrina’s Wake, Wal-Mart and Home Depot Came to the Rescue.” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 10, 2005, p. 1. www.opinionjournal.com/forms/printThis.html?id=110007238 (3-23-07)

Konig, Susan. “Private Companies Rush in to Help Hurricane Katrina Victims.” Health Care News, October 1, 2005. The Heartland Institute: http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17757 (3-30-07)

  • Without disparaging the benevolent intentions of corporate directors, it is worth noting that being charitable is a viable strategy in the pursuit of profit. In a world of instant communication and many competitors, successful businesses understand the long-term value of retaining customers and building a reputation for caring about the well-being of customers and community.
  • The incentives that motivate market response – profit and self-interest – operate in disasters just as they do in normal conditions to reduce the impact of scarcity.
  • Producers and sellers live in a world of changing demand, and their continued profit depends on anticipating and adapting. Those who do not respond quickly may lose out to competitors in the market.
  • Because of this constant need to respond, businesses have an incentive to gather and use information that is unlikely to be collected and processed by anyone else.Thus, they are attuned to the particular circumstances of time and place that are the key to effective disaster response. As the following examples illustrate, businesses routinely gather information and prepare themselves with the answers to questions that most of us do not think to ask until after the disaster strikes.
Sample Illustrations: Knowledge of the Circumstances of Time and Place

#1: Elephants?! Who Knew?

Suppose someone put you in charge. Make a list of things you would want to have on hand to respond to natural disasters. What? You did not have elephants and mahouts (elephant drivers) on the list? What were you thinking?

When the massive Asian tsunami of 2005 (Please see entry in the “Catalog of Disasters” addendum to the Introduction for a overview of the Asian tsunami.) killed more than 144,000 people and devastated huge regions of India, Thailand, and Indonesia, elephants on the set of Oliver Stone’s epic movie, “Alexander,” were shipped to the disaster area to perform rescue operations where modern technology was useless.

“We use the elephants because a truck can’t pass through the thick forest,” says trainer Laitonglian Meepan. “The elephant is like a four-wheel drive. They walk in the forest all their life.” (Zap2it.com)

“. . . [E]lephants work as a team. . . . The more careful elephants help to extricate corpses out of the wreckage, a delicate task since the bodies are badly decomposed. The elephants don’t touch the bodies; they gingerly lift whatever has collapsed on top so that a volunteer can remove the remains.

Aside from digging for corpses, the elephants have found another vocation: towing cars.

One of Medang’s jobs the other day was to remove a tree and several beams that had fallen on a blue Toyota. As soon as the car was freed, it was attached to a chain harness fitted around the shoulder and front legs of another male elephant, Rachman. Men hopped in the car to steer as the elephant began to pull.

It made a tremendous sound between the dull thud of the elephant’s foot steps and the scraping of the underbelly of the chassis through the wreckage. But before long, the Toyota was on a main street being inspected with satisfaction by its owner.

‘I couldn’t find a tow truck. And it would have been too expensive anyway,’ said the car’s owner Firdaus, 29. He paid the equivalent of about $14 for the service.” (Demick)


Demick, Barbara. “Elephants Help Clear Tsunami Debris.” Deseret News, January 23, 2005. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4188/is_20050123/ai_n11497180 (3-28-07)

Zap2it.com. “‘Alexander’ Elephants Aid Tsunami Relief Efforts.” Zap2it.com, January 3, 2005. http://movies.zap2it.com/movies/news/pstory/0,3382,24175,00. (3-10-07)

#2: Strawberry Pop-Tarts? Wal-Mart Knew

While no single person or agency can possibly know the answers to questions like, “What’s needed? Who needs it? Who has what’s needed?,” markets can. The players in markets have an incentive – profit – to find the answers and provide the goods and services people want. The behavior of private firms in preparing for Hurricane Katrina illustrates the power of the profit motive:

  • Wal-Mart’s database of customer purchases told the company that things like strawberry Pop-Tarts, diapers, and toilet paper would be in especially high demand after a hurricane strike. As Katrina approached land, the company used this knowledge and their huge supply-chain to increase stock and move it south toward New Orleans.
  • The Wal-Mart distribution center in Brookhaven, Mississippi contracted with a local gas station for a special line to make sure that Wal-Mart employees could get to work, and Wal-Mart manager Brent Hinton pumped gas for seven hours to encourage and support Wal-Mart workers. Before Katrina made landfall, the employees had forty-five trucks of supplies loaded and ready to go.
  • Hurricane Katrina shut down 126 Wal-Marts. Within two days of the Hurricane strike, 66% of the damaged stores were operational again, and within six days, 80% were operational. In addition, mini-Wal-Marts, many of them in tents, opened throughout the area to sell – and to distribute free – supplies badly needed by hurricane victims.
  • Knowing the demands of victims of previous big hurricanes in Florida and seeing the destruction of New Orleans on television, Black & Decker paid workers for an extra shift to produce more generators over the Labor Day weekend.
  • Home Depot transferred generators, flashlights, batteries, and lumber to distribution centers surrounding the area where Hurricane Katrina was predicted to strike.
  • Phone companies assembled mobile towers, generators, and fuel, ready to move into the Gulf region after the hurricane passed.
  • FedEx used its computerized delivery-management system to chart alternative routes for planes and trucks taking supplies into storm-damaged areas.
  • Before the hurricane hit, State Farm Insurance set up hotlines for claims processing, rented blocks of rooms in hotels in surrounding communities, and began to move special teams of adjusters to the Gulf coast.
  • The market responded to the need for security that police and military could not provide after Katrina as fifty new private security companies were operating in the area within two weeks to provide protection for homes and businesses. The higher price people were willing to pay for security services sent the signal that the existing 185 companies could not meet the demand and acted as a magnet to draw in others with the skills and equipment to provide the service.


Barbaro, Michael and Justin Gillis. “Wal-Mart at Forefront of Hurricane Relief.” The Washington Post, September 6, 2005. p. D01. Source Link (3-28-07)

Friedman, Thomas. The World Is Flat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. p. 136.

Sobel, Russell S. and Peter T. Leeson. “Flirting with Disaster – The Inherent Problems with FEMA (Executive Summary).” Policy Analysis, No. 573, July 19, 2006. Cato Institute. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=6516 (3-3-07)

#3 How to Get Out? The Government Didn’t Know

Hurricane Katrina provided some clear examples of how the market provided disaster relief when the mighty power of the federal government could not.

The giant private hospital company HCA held a “Hurricane Lessons Learned” planning meeting . . . following [2004’s] . . . devastating Florida hurricanes. Some key gaps they identified were: cell phones often fail, so alternative phone systems are needed. Roads become impassable, so emergency supplies have to be stored closer to hospitals. Back-up generators are needed. As a result of the meeting, HCA provided its hospitals with satellite phones, hurricane shutters and additional backup generators. It struck deals with local businesses like refrigeration, water, diesel and gasoline companies to provide supplies quickly in the event of an emergency. In hurricane-prone areas it also warehoused food, medical supplies and other gear closer to its hospitals. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, senior management set up a ‘war room’ and quickly decided they would need to lease 20 helicopters to evacuate their Tulane hospital. HCA’s chairman and CEO didn’t hesitate in ordering them to do so. They used ham radios to create a makeshift air-traffic control system and immediately began ferrying critically ill patients out, without one mishap.

Literally across the street, the state-run Charity hospital was without emergency supplies and unable to get any governmental help in evacuating. Subsisting on fruit cocktail and a dwindling supply of water, Charity’s patients were only saved by being ferried by boat to Tulane and evacuated by HCA’s privately-leased helicopters.”


Theroux, Mary L.G. “Public and Private Responses to Katrina: What Can We Learn?” Oct 20, 2005. Speech presented at the Chief Executive Organization’s Women’s Seminar, Oct 7, 2005. Independent Institute, Oct. 20, 2005. http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1589 (3-29-07)

#4 Everyone Knows What Normal Feels Like & Markets Make It Happen

“. . . [T]he rapid ability of markets to address changing circumstances helps make communities resilient, a key feature of recovery . . . . From daily needs like food and childcare services to large purchases, like cars or houses, market signals effectively share information and enable us to fill a variety of needs . . . . Markets are a vital part of daily life, and in the aftermath of a storm, their re-emergence is critical to community development. . . .

The signals emerging from commercial society provide two key indications to people engaged in the rebuilding effort: they demonstrate what goods and services will be available to returning residents, and more importantly, they serve as a barometer of the long-run prospects of the community. . . .

One Mississippi resident spoke of the importance the reopening of national retail stores and fast food restaurants had for community morale:

‘It was Wal-Mart under a tent. We were all thrilled. Oh, we can go buy pop, or we can get . . . essentials. So we were really happy about that. That was a forward motion. And then Sonic opened. We had the busiest Sonic in . . . the whole United States. . . . Amazing. It was like fine dining. Ooh, this is wonderful, you know, ‘coz there was nothing else then. There was [sic] no stores. There was nothing that was even halfway resembling normal. I guess when businesses open up and they start being fully operational, it reminds us what normalcy used to be like . . . . Like Rite Aid [opened] and it was a one hundred percent Rite Aid . . . . I didn’t go in to buy anything. I just went to walk around and be normal.’”


Chamlee-Wright, Emily and Daniel M. Rothschild. “Disastrous Uncertainty: How Government Disaster Policy Undermines Community Rebound.” Mercatus Policy Series, Policy Comment No. 9., January, 2007. Mercatus Center, George Mason University., pp. 18-19 http://www.mercatus.org/Publications/pubID.3579/pub_detail.asp (3-10-07)

6. When alternatives to market rationing tend to prolong the damage from the disaster; they increase costs and scarcity by promoting hoarding and wasting of resources like labor, energy, and creativity. While rising market prices may seem to impose additional hardship, they speed up the return to normalcy by reallocating resources for effective disaster response.

  • Complaints that higher prices are “unfair” are common when disasters increase scarcity. As a result, we may see individual merchants or even whole cities substitute rationing by queuing for rationing by price. The perception that time spent in line is “free” is misguided even in normal circumstances but particularly in the urgency created by disasters.
  • The cost of standing in line to get low-priced gasoline was calculated in money terms by Richard Bradley and Thomas Tanton of the Institute for Energy Research, using 2005 data: “An hour in line adds about $1.00 per gallon to the pump price for the average American worker.” (Bradley, 4)
  • When time is of critical importance during an emergency, the implicit value of people’s time is surely much higher than their normal wage rates, implying that the extra costs of waiting are very high indeed.
  • Bradley and Tanton also found that first-come-first-served rationing of gasoline:
    • discourages movement of fuel into the emergency areas where it is most needed,
    • encourages hoarding – for example, by “tank-topping” – which increases scarcity as much more gas is carried around in gas tanks than in normal times,
    • encourages “panic buying” (including such dangerous behavior as filling ice chests with gasoline!),
    • triggers shortages, and
    • provokes civil unrest. (Bradley, 5)
  • Analysis of consumer behavior in the chaotic evacuation of Houston during Hurricane Rita revealed that rationing gasoline by low-price-plus-time-in-line had the unfortunate (but predictable) effect of encouraging people to allocate gas to less-urgent uses. Simply put, for people who knew they would be standing in line for gas anyway, standing in line with two cars rather than one added negligibly to the cost of getting out of town. If gas prices had instead been sharply higher (but there were no lines at stations) very real savings could have been realized by taking only one car and filling only one tank with the (temporarily) high-priced gas.
  • In sharp contrast to the consequences of price controls, as the historical example of the Great Chicago Fire illustrates, rising market prices send signals that reduce the post-disaster chaos and facilitate a rapid return to normal conditions – and normal prices.
Case Study: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Prices Help Housing Markets Recover Quickly

Theory predicts that markets will adjust to changes in circumstances to maintain the most beneficial allocation of resources, but do they? What happens in “real life” when natural disasters, for example, significantly increase scarcity, impacting the well-being of thousands of people? Conducting experiments to test our theories is neither desirable nor possible, but historical records sometimes provide what amounts to experimental data on the operation of markets. Records from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, for example, allow us to “test” the contention that markets, operating on their own, can quickly adapt to changing conditions and return life to normal.

Disaster relief was not considered a role for the federal government until well into the 20th century, and at the time of the fire, even state and local governments did little to expand their conventional roles of maintaining law and order and emergency rescue through police and fire departments and militias. (This is not to understate the importance of these roles. The Chicago Evening Journal noted that, “The city is infested with a horde of thieves, burglars and cut-throats, bent on plunder, and who will not hesitate to burn, pillage and even murder, as opportunity may seem to offer them to do so with safety. . . . The authorities declared martial law, and Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero and a Chicago resident, led troops in to help preserve ‘the good order and peace of the city,’ in the words of Mayor Roswell B. Mason.”) (Phillips)

Issues of The Chicago Tribune published before and after the fire are the inadvertent sources of data for our historical economic experiment. While a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, economist Dendy Macaulay used newspaper ads, notices, and published public records to construct a picture of the post-fire Chicago housing market. Her 2005 analysis reinforces the predictions of our economic model; she found that price changes caused reallocation of resources to address the housing shortage so effectively that the Chicago housing market resumed its pre-fire development trend by the fall of 1872, only one year after the fire left one-third of the city’s population homeless and destroyed over half of its property value. (See entry in the “Catalog of Disasters” addendum to the Introduction for a complete description and overview of the economic impact of the Chicago fire.)

Macaulay also found that the significant price changes that occurred as the rental and boarding markets reacted to both supply shock (rooms and apartments destroyed by fire) and consumption shock (influx of workers in addition to returning residents whose houses had been destroyed) were short-lived. Rather than imposing long-term hardship, the changing prices effected a reallocation of resources that quickly allowed the city to recover and citizens to resume their normal activities. Among Macaulay’s findings:

  • Two months after the fire, the rental prices jumped 40% above the pre-fire, upward trend, but had returned to the long-term trend by September, 1872, only 11 months after the fire.
  • The Chicago Tribune estimated that by October 16, eight days after the fire, 60,000 residents had left the city, but over half of them returned within a few weeks. Added to their demand for temporary housing was that of workers who flooded into the city as rebuilding began. Boarding rates jumped 60% but, as with rental prices, returned to pre-fire trends within a year.

· In all, 17,500 buildings – including homes and businesses – were destroyed in the fire. As winter approached, the Relief and Aid Society helped residents build two-room temporary shelters (16 X 25 ft.) on their burned over lots. By early November, 4000 (of the eventual 11,000) had already been completed.

· Even before the city adopted a fire-safety building code in February, 1872, many residents decided to rebuild with more fireproof materials. Debris had to be piled along the shore of Lake Michigan before reconstruction could start, but even so, by late November, barely six weeks after the fire, 212 permanent stone or brick buildings – business and residential – were under construction.

  • Housing values, not as influenced by short term changes as the rental and boarding markets, nonetheless showed a post-fire increase of 20%. As in the other markets, the evidence of market shock had disappeared by the fire’s anniversary date in 1872.

· Prices of houses are a reflection of their discounted future rental value. Because the market anticipated that rental values would come back down as rebuilding progressed, housing prices did not spike as much as rents and boarding rates did.

Macaulay’s investigation also turned up illustrations of how the changes in housing markets caused other markets to change – for example, the markets for fire brick and the lime-free clay used to make it. In response to the February, 1872, City Council ordinance establishing a fire-safe building code, the increased demand for fire brick caused the price from the Philadelphia supplier to skyrocket, a strong incentive to find a local source. Construction records show that the incentive worked, and much of the brick used to rebuild the city was made of clay mined from the shores of Lake Michigan. ( 21)

Source: Macaulay, Dendy. “The Chicago Fire of 1871: An Empirical Analysis.” Unpublished manuscript. University of Chicago, May, 2005).


In 1945, Frederich von Hayek offered us the answer to the question posed in this lesson – “When disaster strikes, what can markets do?” – by pointing out that to successfully address scarcity and satisfy people’s wants, economies must “adapt to changes in the particular circumstance of time and place.” Markets do that to our advantage not only in day-to-day life, but also in the urgency of disaster. Market prices communicate information about what is available and what is wanted and they provide incentives for both producers and consumers to make choices that reduce the impact of disaster-heightened scarcity. And, markets do so at less cost than other methods of allocation. This is not to contend that we should leave all disaster response to the market. Even in normal times, we recognize the value of institutions other than markets; we understand the important role they play in our well-being, and we depend on them to work in conjunction with markets in times of disaster. In the next lesson – “When Disaster Strikes, What Can Government Do?” – we will look at important disaster-related tasks like organizing emergency rescue, maintaining the rule of law, and repairing infrastructure.

When we consider how our institutions can best serve us in disaster, it is surely appropriate to acknowledge that there are some things the markets do not do well. But, it is also important to remember the market’s effectiveness in marshalling and allocating resources to satisfy our wants. When we appreciate what markets do, we can step back and let them work. Wal-Mart Chief Executive Lee Scott, Jr. commented after Hurricane Katrina, “We can’t do more than our own part. . . . [but] There is a portion we can do, and we can do it darn well!” (Barbaro, D01) He makes a good point – for Wal-Mart and for markets.


Barbaro, Michael and Justin Gillis. “Wal-Mart at Forefront of Hurricane Relief.” The Washington Post, September 6, 2005. p. D01. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/05/AR2005090501598.html (3-28-07)

Bradley, Robert L. and Thomas Tanton. “Motor Fuel and Natural Disasters: Don’t Regulate.” American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Policy Forum, Winter, 2005. Institute for Energy Research, October 24, 2005. http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/TantonPriceGouging.final.pdf (04-3-07)

Chamlee-Wright, Emily and Daniel M. Rothschild. “Disastrous Uncertainty: How Government Disaster Policy Undermines Community Rebound.” Mercatus Policy Series, Policy Comment No. 9, January, 2007. Mercatus Center, George Mason University. http://www.mercatus.org/Publications/pubID.3579/pub_detail.asp (3-10-07)

Demick, Barbara. “Elephants Help Clear Tsunami Debris.” Deseret News, January 23, 2005. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4188/is_20050123/ai_n11497180 (3-28-07)

Ed. “Private FEMA – In Katrina’s Wake, Wal-Mart and Home Depot Came to the Rescue.” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 10, 2005. www.opinionjournal.com/forms/printThis.html?id=110007238 (3-23-07)

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Houston Branch. “In the Eye of the Storm: Gasoline Markets After the Hurricanes.” Houston Business – A Perspective on the Houston Economy, June, 2006. http://www.dallasfed.org/research/houston/2006/hb0602.html (3-30-07)

Fishbough, Ed and Jeff Prescott. “HCA Completes Airlift Evacuation at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic; Assists Nearby Hospitals.” HCA News http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=63489&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=752385&highlight= (3-28-07)

Friedman, Thomas. The World Is Flat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. p. 136.

Hayek, Frederich A. “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” The American Economic Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 4. September, 1945. pp. 519-530.

Konig, Susan. “Private Companies Rush in to Help Hurricane Katrina Victims.” Health Care News, October 1, 2005. The Heartland Institute: http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17757 (3-30-07)

Macaulay, Dendy. “The Chicago Fire of 1871: An Empirical Analysis.” Unpublished manuscript. University of Chicago, May, 2005).

Phillips, Michael and Cynthia Crossen. “Will New Orleans Rebound?” The Wall Street Journal Online, September 1, 2005. Source Link (3-30-07)

Salinger, Michael A., Director, Bureau of Economics, Federal Trade Commission. “Moneyball and Price Gouging.” Address t the Antitrust Committee of Boston Bar Association, February 27, 2006, p. 3 http://www.ftc.gov/speeches/salinger/060227MoneyballandPriceGouging.pdf (3-10-07)

Sobel, Russell S. and Peter T. Leeson. “Flirting with Disaster – The Inherent Problems with FEMA (Executive Summary).” Policy Analysis, No. 573, July 19, 2006. Cato Institute. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=6516 (3-3-07)

_____. “The Use of Knowledge in Natural Disaster Relief Management.” Global Prosperity Initiative Working Paper, Mercatus Center, George Mason University, November 15, 2006. http://www.mercatus.org/publications/pubid.3584/pub_detail.asp (3-3-07)

Theroux, Mary L.G. “Public and Private Responses to Katrina: What Can We Learn?” Oct 20, 2005 Speech presented at the Chief Executive Organization’s Women’s Seminar, Oct 7, 2005. Independent Institute, Oct. 20, 2005. http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1589 (3-29-07)

U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Private-Sector Support for Tsunami Relief.” USINFO.STATE.GOV http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/tsunami/private.htm (3-30-07)

Zap2it.com. “‘Alexander’ Elephants Aid Tsunami Relief Efforts.” Zap2it.com, January 3, 2005. http://movies.zap2it.com/movies/news/pstory/0,3382,24175,00. (3-10-07)

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