When is the right time to measure economic damages from a disaster?

By now most know of the train derailment in East Palestine (pronounced pal-uh-steen), Ohio and the ensuing decision to burn the chemicals spilling from the train rather than wait for a potentially more disastrous–and perhaps more lethal–explosion. What is not yet known, and likely won’t be known for some time, is the scope and extent of the full set of damages. Within days of the derailment I received calls asking something along the lines:

“Would you and your team please move forward with determining the agricultural, environmental and health impacts of the train derailment in Columbiana County?” 

My standard response is along the lines:

“That’s a big (and broad) ask. We have experts who may be able to estimate the economic impacts once the scope of the damages are known. Do we know the potential for short-term vs long-term effects at this point? Estimating economic impacts/damages will require a coordinated effort between those measuring and cataloguing the physical damages and then those who are well-versed in understanding the market and non-market values associated with damage assessment (the economics folks).

I realize this is a frustrating response and likely to make people wonder what economists really do, but the need for patience in determining the full value lost is important to ensure we capture all of the damages. For example, here’s a story that came out yesterday highlighting the potential scope for damages:

The East Palestine train derailment has had a far reaching impact on businesses even outside of the village.

21 News reporter Leslie Huff spoke with one farm in Columbiana who says they have lost nearly half of their business, not because there is anything wrong with their product, but because of fear of the unknown.

For Lamppost Farm in Columbiana, their sales have dramatically fell by 50%.  Executive director Steve Montgomery says concerns about product contamination is the reason they are seeing a decrease. 
These types of damages are likely to persist and the full scope of health, social, economic, and environmental damages is likely to take months if not years to know with any sense of accuracy. Does this mean we should withhold aid until all damages are known?
No, of course not. Immediate aid should be focused on medical and income support for those directly impacted and documented. Once the urgency of the event subsides, the the real works begins to understand and estimate the full scope of damages and the associated loss of economic value.
Until then, the focus should be on taking care of the people and limiting future damages.


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