Just days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke in New Orleans, evacuees began arriving at the Houston Astrodome. About 25,000 people sheltered there. (FEMA photo/Andrea Booher)

COVID-19 Pandemic Plus the Big One: Preparing for a Disaster Double-Punch

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We’d like to offer an ode to our nation’s emergency planners. Stay nimble and keep going.

While working in Guam with FEMA following the devastating 2002 typhoon Pongsona, we asked a responder what made the disaster such a challenge.

“This event threw so many things at us we never anticipated. We had a typhoon, a fire at the oil refinery, and a breakdown of the fuel distribution system. The airport shut down. The port closed. At the hospital they’re operating with flashlights because they have no power. If this had been an exercise (instead of a real disaster) we would have said, ‘No way. That’s too unrealistic. It’ll never be that hard.”

The rapidly cascading consequences of COVID-19 bring this planning lesson home, again. Among the offensive strategies most commonly cited in an emergency – go big, go fast – are two more: be nimble and keep planning.

For decades our nation game-planned for a pandemic much like the one we face now. Some of those exercises identified many of the challenges we now confront, including resource shortages of such common items as masks, intergovernmental squabbles because each state has a constitutional right to determine their own quarantine and social distancing policies, and a staggering economic downturn.

So if the planning was good, why is the execution faltering? It’s not that we didn’t plan well or even that we started planning too late. We stopped too early. There was limited follow-up. Problems were identified but not repaired. People got pulled away to deal with another crisis.

Because of past planning at least we do know what happens during an infectious disease outbreak. We know the COVID-19 contagion is going to get worse before it gets better. Some may argue that despite earlier missteps now we know everything we’re dealing with, and we can stop planning and just aggressively respond.

The Denver Emergency Operations Center activated in support of the Democratic National Convention. (FEMA photo/Michael Rieger)

Unfortunately, no.

Planning is a journey not a destination, as FEMA’s talented planners used to remind us when we were with the agency.

Consider this from Annie Vainshtein, a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle.

Vainshtein reported California Sen. Kamala Harris, among others, asked disaster teams what would happen if the Bay Area got hit by “The Big One” while dealing with a big one. In local parlance, “The Big One” means the long-expected catastrophic earthquake.

In other words, how would the San Francisco metro area handle a home-wrecking quake during a stay-at-home pandemic?

Answer: It would be a challenge, to state the obvious.

Here’s two enormous problems, right off the bat.

One: Coronavirus already has taxed the healthcare system to its limit. There’s not much left in reserve.

Two: The newly homeless will need a safe place to stay. Before COVID-19, disaster protocol called for mass shelters. Today we are fighting an easily transmissible infectious disease, so that strategy needs to be revised.

Seismologists the Chronicle’s Vainshtein spoke with did, however, point out a few advantages we have going for us.

The deadly coronavirus attacks people, not buildings, power grids or water treatment plants. Earthquakes do the opposite. As preparedness people preach, earthquakes don’t kill people; collapsing buildings in an earthquake kill people.

So, in terms of damage to life-sustaining infrastructure specifically, an earthquake on top of a pandemic would be less impactful than, say, an earthquake after a flood, when already weakened facilities more easily topple from the shaking.

Emergency managers also point out the public’s preparation for isolating at home due to COVID-19 means we have a public better prepared than usual if something unexpected happens.

Residents line up for gas on the island of Guam after super typhoon Pongsona. (FEMA photo/Andrea Booher)

Furthermore, we would add, disaster teams already have been fully activated, emergency operations centers already have opened, and governmental leadership has gone into full-throttle crisis management mode. With all hands currently engaged, a governor doesn’t need to worry the state’s response superstar has left town to trek to Machu Picchu. We won’t be starting from scratch.

But the other reassuring aspect of the story to us was this: No one said, “Gosh, I haven’t even thought about that.”

In fact, they have thought about it. A lot. Knowing the emergency management pros there like we do, they’re probably spending all day fighting the coronavirus and all night awake thinking of contingencies if an earthquake strikes.

And for good reason.

Here’s an inconvenient truth: In the disaster business double and triple punches happen. Not just in San Francisco. Everywhere.

Back to back disasters typically occur in one of three ways:

1. Climatic conditions favor development. We see this with hurricanes and typhoons, when warmer ocean temperatures, warm air, and lack of wind shear can produce one after another. Floyd after Fran, Rita after Katrina, Ike after Gustav, Pongsona after Chataan.

2. The first event triggers secondary events. In 2011, in Japan, the Great Sendai Earthquake triggered a tsunami, which caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. There’s Hurricane Katrina, where the most horrific impact came not from fierce winds but failed levees.

Contemplate what Annalee Newitz wrote in a March 29 New York Times story about the bubonic plague.

“By late 1666, the plague had begun its retreat from England, but one disaster led to another. In autumn, the Great Fire of London destroyed the city’s downtown in a weeklong conflagration. The damage was so extensive in part because city officials were slow to respond, having already spent over a year dealing with the plague. The fire left 70,000 Londoners homeless.”

3. Randomly. In 1989, while managing a Hurricane Hugo disaster recovery center in Utuado, Puerto Rico, one of us (Ed Conley) woke up one morning to discover his home state of California had been hit by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Credit senator Harris and others for reminding us that all those natural hazards that posed a risk before COVID-19 still exist today. And credit history for providing us with deadly reminders of what happens when we stop preparing for the next disaster because we’re too busy with the current one.

Former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate presciently made the same point in 2009.

Disaster medical assistance teams provide medical care at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (FEMA photo/Michael Rieger)

Fugate became nationally known for crisis leadership for the way he magnificently managed the response to four back-to-back hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004, when he was Gov. Jeb Bush’s point person for emergencies.

In 2009 newly inaugurated President Obama appointed him FEMA administrator, and tasked him to rebuild the nation’s disaster management system, which had fumbled during Hurricane Katrina.

Many praised the appointment of Fugate because, obviously, hurricanes should be the nation’s top disaster priority.

Fugate had a different point of view. And he made that clear at his first all-hands meeting.

“Stop focusing only on hurricanes,” he told a packed auditorium and national video audience of responders. “Our next disaster could be an earthquake. We’re FEMA, not HEMA – the Hurricane Emergency Management Agency. We’re all hazards, all the time. As of right now we start planning smart. That means we stop planning as if the next disaster will be exactly like the last disaster.”

Here’s our ranking of the seven largest emergencies occurring on U.S. soil or involving significant U.S. responses over the past 20 years: 2001 9/11 terrorist attacks, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 2015-2018 California firestorms, 2017 Hurricane Maria, 2020 COVID-19.

The pattern is there is no pattern, except the next one is not a matter of if but when.

Let’s end on a positive note, which we adamantly believe. We’ll eventually get through whatever this pandemic, Mother Nature, or anything else throws at us next. Not because we have no choice. But because we can. And because we always have.

But let’s be primed to go big, go fast, and be nimble. Because we kept planning.

So, the next time the boss pulls the team together to discuss the coronavirus response and someone says, “Well, actually, we’re preparing for floods, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes too,” don’t think they aren’t contributing to the cause.

They most certainly are.

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Ed Conley is a disaster response and crisis communications consultant who worked for FEMA for more than 20 years. He served in senior leadership positions on more than 200 response operations.

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