ISU economists determine economic impact of state's 2008 weather-related disasters

AMES, Iowa -- While central Iowa communities continue to assess the damage from the flooding earlier this month, two Iowa State University economists have released a report that evaluates the economic impact of the weather-related damage to the state in 2008. And while Dave Swenson and Liesl Eathington acknowledge that many Iowans were devastated by those weather-related disasters, their evaluation failed to find conclusive evidence of measurable and lasting reductions in overall industrial production or household consumption.

"We were surprised by this and I said it was like the old Timex ad. We took a licking and kept on ticking," Swenson said. "Our economy was strong enough in that combined region -- for example, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa City economy -- and so large and diverse that it took that kind of devastation literally in stride. And while we recognize that there was incredible destruction and heartache in the core of the flood area, that's different than the aggregate economic impact."

Their report also did not detect strong evidence of net population loss in areas most affected by the flooding. And while they found a measurable short-term boost in unemployment and layoffs at the time of the disaster, they did not see evidence that the most flooded counties posted higher unemployment rates than would have been expected because of the recession.

Identifying the hardest hit areas

In order to make their analysis, Swenson and Eathington first identified the areas that were hardest hit by the weather that year. Using data from selected federal disaster assistance programs on household, public sector, business and crop losses, they determined six counties fell into the "Very High Impact" category: Black Hawk, Bremer, Butler, Johnson, Linn and Louisa. Four other counties -- Benton, Cerro Gordo, Floyd and Muscatine -- also fell into the "High Impact" category.

Combined, those 10 high impact counties accounted for 84 percent of measured household losses; 79 percent of losses to public buildings, parks, roads and other infrastructure; and 94 percent of documented losses to business because of the weather, according to the report.

"We figured that if we could first identify the areas with the most wide-spread damage, they ought to be the ones that demonstrated the greatest impact in terms of what happened to their job levels, their population, their school enrollments, etc.," Eathington said. "And when we looked at all the counties, there was a group that stood out as being the highest dollar amounts of loss across the four sectors."

Swenson says federal disaster-relief funding played a big role in mitigating the long-term economic damage to those counties. He modeled close to $2.4 billion in money spent to either restore households, assist businesses, repair of restore public facilities, or otherwise aid in the relief effort. He concludes that over a three-year period, that amount of activity was able to sustain almost 16,700 jobs in the first year and 14,350 in the second year of recovery.

An early economic stimulus

"We realized that the rebuilding effort -- the massive flow of funds and federal assistance to households and businesses, as well as the FEMA-assistance to governments -- was actually working in a very concentrated way to stimulate job creation and really stimulate demand for consumer goods in those areas," Swenson said. "And that was masking, if anything, what would have been some kind of measure of the net loss."

"So we were getting the economic stimulus before the rest of the country in the form of disaster relief funds," Eathington added.

As an example, Swenson reports that Cedar Rapids closed out 2008 with a 5.5 percent gain in Gross Domestic Product over the previous year -- approximately a full percent greater than the state of Iowa's gain.

The ISU economists also determined that previously feared high losses to Iowa agriculture in 2008 were substantially less than initial estimates because those losses were significantly offset by crop insurance indemnity payments and targeted federal disaster assistance.

Because state and federal disaster relief funding was quickly made available to victims of the recent flooding across Iowa, Swenson sees similar economic trends playing out in the state's most recent disaster.