Explaining a statistic: Haiti and Louisiana

In an NPR All Things Considered discussion yesterday with Guy Raz, I mentioned that if the worst predictions of the death toll from the Haitian earthquake came true, the loss would be comparable, on a proportional basis, to the death of everyone in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina.

I realize that after a certain point mere numbers are meaningless in describing a catastrophe of this sort. Maybe I shouldn't have attempted such a comparison at all. But in response to several messages and blog posts wondering if that figure could possibly be true (and one flatly though incorrectly asserting that it was not true), the answer is: Yes, it unfortunately could. Here's the math, in a form I couldn't take time to explain on the air:

Haiti's population is around 9.8 million. The initial death estimates were around 45,000 or 50,000 -- unbelievably terrible in themselves, and equivalent to about half of one percent of the nation's whole population. As I wrote earlier here, a comparable .5% loss in the United States would mean about 1.5 million deaths. But current estimates are that the eventual toll in Haiti could be much higher, perhaps three or four times as high. If that turns out to be the case, with 1.5 to 2 percent of the entire nation dying, then the comparable figure for the US would also be much higher -- four million and up. The total population of Louisiana is about four million, so that is the basis of the comparison.

Again, at this point numbers become meaningless in what is in any case a barely imaginable tragedy. But this is the basis for my attempt to put the numbers in context on a U.S. scale.