This blog is a part of our series, “Perspectives in Crime” where we explore leading academic studies that touch on crime data.

Does political corruption correlate with the death toll of an earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster?

In January of 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe, Japan. Registering 7.2 on the Richter scale, it was Japan’s worst earthquake since 1923. More than 400,000 buildings were severely damaged, and 5,297 people died.

In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This time, more than 280,000 structures were severely damaged, and the death toll was estimated to be more than 250,000 — over 40 times the death toll in Kobe.

How can two earthquakes of similar magnitude yield death tolls with a disparity of over 200,000 lives?

A few obvious factors account for a portion of the difference. One is the difference in economic development between Haiti and Japan. Japan has a highly developed economy, with more robust infrastructure and more resources available to allocate towards rescue and recovery. Haiti, in contrast, is a much poorer nation.

In statistical analyses of every recorded earthquake from 1960 to 2019 — totaling more than 900 earthquakes — Pinkerton’s data scientists identified another important factor: corruption. Analyses show, when controlling for these other factors, political corruption is highly correlated with the resulting death toll of an earthquake.

Infographic showing how corruption affects comparable disasters with very different death tolls. Includes a quadrant scatter graph with an x-axis of Political Corruption Index and a y-axis of Natural Disaster Index, plus a global map color-coded to show countries that are high on both dimensions.

Correlation between corruption and natural disasters

In exploring the relationship between corruption and natural disasters, our data scientists analyzed reports by V-dem, an international organization that evaluates democracy quality of a government. V-dem, who collects data on the electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian aspects of a governments rule of law, defines corruption as when an executive or their agents takes bribes or kickbacks, or steal, embezzle, or otherwise misappropriate public funds or other state resources for personal or family use.

Proper zoning, building construction, and disaster relief funds are all susceptible to mismanagement and misappropriation. This type of corruption results in both a deterioration of public institutions and propagation of lower quality building stock, which in turn results in more severe outcomes following a natural disaster.

The relationship between corruption and natural disasters is entangled. While existing corruption can exacerbate the consequences of a natural disaster, the influx of disaster relief funds also creates new opportunities for governmental corruption and social unrest. This relationship can destabilize and drastically change the welfare of a population center hit by a disaster, exemplified by the social and political unrest generated in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The hurricanes, the response, and the economy

Hurricane Maria struck the American territory of Puerto Rico in September of 2017, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma passed to the north of the island causing power outages, flooding, and damage.  

The associated death toll was initially placed at 64 deaths but was raised to a staggering 2,975 after a series of studies conducted by the Milken Institute School of Public Health. It took over 300 days to fully restore electricity to the island (though it remained unstable for a couple of years with rolling blackouts). Delays in restoration of the power grid and distribution of potable water throughout the island resulted in many additional (and arguably preventable) deaths.

The hurricane and the governmental response dealt a staggering blow to the economy of Puerto Rico, which already had a poverty rate of 44%. By 2019, the government reported that there were still 300,000 homes on the island with blue tarps for roofs, and by 2021, tens of thousands blue tarps remained.

The consequences of Hurricane Maria for Puerto Rico have been myriad. A poorly coordinated response to the initial storm, as well as an incomplete and ineffective application of relief funds, fueled widespread protests and resulted in the resignation of the Governor and several other government officials.

Impacts of natural disasters and corruption

The trend of worsening natural disasters on a global scale suggests that unstable nations will face amplified consequences, including an increasing lack of trust and confidence in authorities and governments. Countries with a high coincidence of natural disaster risk and political corruption are in a troubling feedback loop where each disaster can exacerbate political instability and corruption which results in worse outcomes following future disasters. 


This article updates our November 21, 2019 post: "How Corruption Impacts Natural Disasters."

Published July 21, 2022