Every once in awhile, when people are talking about a whole lot of something, say, biting insects, they'll say, Watch out! There are a zillion mosquitoes.
There's no such number as a zillion. But we learned recently that there is a real number called a quadrillion.
The term came up when the United States Government put a price tag on all the monetary claims of victims of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the nation's Gulf Coast region in 2005.
The figure spills across 16 numbers, not counting pennies. It reads as follows:
That's 3 quadrillion, 14 trillion, 170 billion, 389 million, 176 thousand, 410 dollars.
Even the federal government, which is used to annual budgets in the low trillions, has never had to deal with a quadrillion! The claimants include the City of New Orleans, La., which is seeking a mere $77 billion dollars. That's a pittance when you're talking quadrillions.
This makes us think of the famous quotation by the late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen. Worried that federal spending could get out of control in 1969, he said, "A billion here, a billion there, and sooner or later it adds up to real money."
Of course the federal government, which is running a deficit, doesn't have $3 quadrillion. It has budgeted 25,000 times less than that for Hurricane Katrina relief.
Even if you write down the figure and stare at it, it's hard to get your arms around a number that stretches 16 places across the page. But it's a startling illustration of just how terrible were the hurricane winds, and inadequate were the levees, that August night in 2005.