Together/Alone: Sorry to Ask, But What Happens If There’s Another Emergency?

I don’t want to alarm you, really. 

But even as we cope with COVID-19, we need to be asking ourselves — as a nation — if we are ready should another crisis hit.

A natural disaster like wildfires or hurricanes. A terrorist attack. A military conflict.

As the pandemic’s toll increases, our preparedness for other matters will only decrease, officials say.

And experts point to major gaps in all levels of readiness, from the federal and state level, to whether we ordinary Americans are as ready as we should be.

“Sometimes as disaster research experts, we are asked what keeps you up at night? This is something that I think a large number of us are really worried about,” said Tricia Wachtendorf, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. 

Natural Disasters

She cited hurricanes (the season starts June 1) and wildfires (climate change has made timelines unpredictable).

Tornadoes can occur anytime — it was only a month ago that a deadly tornado touched down in Nashville — but summer is often perilous.

But most of all, Wachtendorf said she was increasingly concerned that the way officials are speaking about COVID-19 is breeding “a significant amount of mistrust.”

You gain trust in drops and lose it in buckets,” she said.

“If we want people to take appropriate protective action, we know that that information needs to be specific,” Wachtendorf said. “It needs to be clear, it needs to be consistent. We are not seeing that happen right now with the COVID-19 situation.”

A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) didn’t return a request for comment. President Donald Trump has praised his administration’s response to the pandemic.

Brock Long, who headed FEMA from 2017 until 2019, said the agency staff is practicing social distancing to minimize infection, and is looking into alternate emergency operations centers apart from its Washington, D.C. headquarters. 

Brock Long, right, when he was FEMA administrator last year, in the Oval Office with President Trump. (File)


There are also 10 regional centers that can be used to direct resources. 

But FEMA was set up as less of a unified response force than a coordinating agency during emergencies, said Long, executive chairman of Hagerty Consulting.

FEMA was never designed to be 911, nor should it be,” he said, noting that each layer of government is expected to look to a wider level during times of need. 

“The nation’s got to realize that while we often like to blame FEMA for when things go really bad, it’s really a partnership and it even goes down to neighbor helping neighbor and building a true culture of preparedness.

More about that in a moment.

Military Readiness 

Militarily, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last month that the Armed Forces was preparing to curtail exercises; somewhat confusingly, perhaps, he added that “over time” this could result in “an impact on readiness but nothing to which I fear impacts our mission readiness to conduct our national missions.”

A week later, President Trump said that Iran or its allies were planning to launch an attack in Iraq. That followed a threat from the group calling itself the Islamic State “to show no mercy and launch attacks in this time of crisis.”

“It is hard for me to think of a moment where so many of our interests around the world are at risk at the same time,” said Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon and White House official, noting “from my sense, the military is handling this pretty well up to now.”

“There’s also the crises that we’re not thinking about,” added Chollet, now executive vice president and senior advisor for security and defense policy at German Marshall Fund.

“Elsewhere in the Middle East or in Latin America or something, that whether it’s a humanitarian disaster or, you know, a miscalculation of some kind, or an adversary seeking to take advantage, it could force the U.S. to make some hard decisions about how it’s managing the risks currently,” Chollet said.

In two hot spots. the Korean Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, the virus has affected operations. South Korea’s robust response to the virus has enabled the U.S. military to maintain a high state of preparedness, said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps Colonel who now serves as senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said in the Persian Gulf, troops are locked down in bases.

So you still see a very high level of readiness and preparation,” he said. “If this gets worse, if we ask the military to shelter in place and stop deploying ships globally and troops totally, then you could see a decline in U.S. global presence and all the risks that go with that.”

Getting Yourself Prepared

From my vantage, there is reason for concern. 

So apart from staying appropriately, but not excessively vigilant, what can you do?

A few things.

Obviously, on a geopolitical scale there’s not too much one person staying in quarantine can do — unless you have an untapped talent for vaccines.

Long, the former FEMA administrator, also talks passionately about community involvement and individual responsibility, particularly when it comes to “financial resilience.” 

“FEMA disaster relief is only designed to kickstart recovery, not make you whole,” Long said. “And we just need to have an honest conversation of what the country’s got to do to be better prepared for everything that we’re facing down the road.” 

But if anything, this latest crisis shows how many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, without health insurance.

As for your local and state governments, yours quite possibly may be stretched to breaking points now, or soon will be. Social services are being cut. 

Another emergency could require a neighbor helping another more than ever. And families should have more than one personal emergency plan — “Plan B” or “Plan C,” said Wachtendorf, noting Plan A may have involved living with someone with a compromised immune system. 

“Somebody may have undergone cancer treatment in the past year,” Wachtendorf said. “Normally, you might not have thought about that as being an issue for an evacuation and somewhere to stay. Now, that becomes a real issue and that possibility gets eliminated.”

Most importantly, in my mind, is to stay at home as much as possible; let hospitals get through this peak; and, allow this virus, hopefully, to run its course. 

By staying apart, we are collectively helping one another.  I guess “we’re alone” is closer to “we’re all in it together” than I would have thought.


Sanity Clause

Connecting with old friends. Is this the time to reach out to people you haven’t heard from in years? Seems like it, based on anecdotal evidence and my own experience. It’s not surprising, I suppose. Mortality can bring that out. People seem to be in a more forgiving mood: more reflective, more willing to see slights and misconceptions with today’s perspective. So — perhaps — for some sanity and love, embrace people from the past, if only virtually. Will the good feelings exceed the quarantine? I don’t know, but if this whole business has taught me one thing, it’s that nothing in life is guaranteed anyway.

Trapped Parent Tip

The sounds of birds. Springtime chirping mercifully pulls me from ever-present sadness, if only for a moment. They are everywhere, not just in the suburbs and rural parts of the country, but the city too. Back at home, check out Birds of North America with Jason Ward. He got hooked on our avian neighbors as a kid in the Bronx, when he spotted a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon outside his bedroom window.  In your (brief) walks in the park with your kids, listen. Fewer cars makes it easier.