No one would question that New Orleans and thousands of its residents suffered enormous damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Some people lost everything. One person apparently lost more than everything, since he or she filed a claim against the federal government demanding over three quadrillion dollars — $3,014,170,389,176,410, to be exact.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it has received almost half a million claims to date as a result of Katrina, including one by the city of New Orleans that totaled $77 billion. Two hundred and forty-six other claims (many by individuals) also exceeded $1 billion, but the $3 quadrillion claim appeared to be by far the largest.
That’s good, because it’s going to be difficult for the government to pay the claim as it is. A quadrillion (1 followed by 15 zeros) is one thousand trillion. There are only about 300 million stars in the Milky Way galaxy. That’s not just a lot of money for one person, it’s about $10 for every cell in that person’s body. The entire gross domestic product of the United States was $13.2 trillion last year, so the claimant is demanding that the country’s entire output of goods and services be turned over to him or her for the next 228 years and four months. According to the article, a stack of one quadrillion pennies (and I think paying this person’s award in pennies is not a bad idea) would reach to Saturn, and you would need 301 of those stacks (plus a little extra) to pay this demand.
It’s a big number. In fact, according to the expert economist contacted by the Associated Press for comment on this story, it’s "the mother of all high numbers." And now, a bulleted list of my thoughts on that comment:
- The saying "the mother of all _____" didn’t make any sense to begin with.
- It was coined by noted wit Saddam Hussein, another reason to stop using it.
- It makes even less sense for numbers than it did for battles. You can always add one to any number, so by definition there is no mother of all high numbers.
- Anyone can get their name in the paper.
- Anyone can be an economist.
"I understand the anger" that would generate such a number, continued this economist, apparently also a qualified psychologist. "I also understand it’s a negotiating tactic: Aim high and negotiate down." I’m on the phone to the Nobel committee as we speak. Where will you go from here, doctor? "My new theory involves buying an item at one price, selling it at some other price, and examining the results. If conditions are right, the seller may ‘profit’ from this exchange. It’s an exciting idea."
Daniel Becnel, an attorney who has filed some 60,000 claims for Katrina victims (but apparently none of the ginormous ones), said that measuring the damage Katrina caused is nearly impossible. "There’s no way you can figure it out," he said. "The trauma these people have undergone is unlike anything that has occurred in the history of our country." That’s true. I’m just saying that one of them has slightly overvalued his or her claim by asking for more money than has ever been generated in the history of our country. Although some experts believe this may be just a negotiating tactic.
The Corps is apparently only collecting the claims, not evaluating them — the federal courts get to do that. Amanda Jones, the spokesperson for the Corps, said that they weren’t passing judgment on any of the claims. "[Each claim is] important to the person who filed it," she said, "so we’re taking every single claim seriously." Every single one.
The name of the mega-claimant was not released, but based on the zip code the claim was filed in Baker, Louisiana. Hopefully, they have set aside some storage space for the 301.4 Saturn-high stacks of pennies that may be delivered there after the claims are processed.