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Evolution of Wealth and Consumption in the Aftermath of a Major Natural Disaster

By Ralph Lawton   

Natural disasters can have catastrophic personal and economic effects, particularly in low-resource settings. Major natural disasters are becoming more frequent, so rigorous understanding of their effects on long-term economic wellbeing is fundamentally important in order to mitigate their impacts on exposed populations. In this paper, I investigate the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on real consumption and assets at the individual level. I also examine the heterogeneity of those impacts, and the related effects on inequality. Taking individual-specific heterogeneity into account with fixed effects, I find individuals living in heavily damaged areas experience major declines in real consumption and assets, and do not recover in the long term. These results are strikingly different than results that do not consider price effects, as well as previously published macroeconomic results. I also find significant heterogeneity by age, education-level, pre-tsunami socioeconomic status, and whether an individual went into a refugee camp. The tsunami resulted in large, long-term declines in asset inequality, and a temporary increase in consumption inequality that returns to near pre-tsunami levels in the long run.

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Advisors: Professor Duncan Thomas, Professor Michelle Connolly | JEL Codes: D1, D15, H84

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