Community Resilience Continuity Contributors Crisis management Emergency Management

The Brick Wall of Hope is causing complacency and denial

Emergency Managers must take ownership of catastrophes and connect together a national team, a team of teams, in minutes.

If all goes well (admittedly a big “if” lately) my audiobook, Moment of Truth [1], will drop next month.  The mission of the book is to warn the nation, and the world, about the threat of catastrophes.  But when it was published in the summer of 2018, I hadn’t so much written it as allowed it to burst forth.  So much emotion ‒ anger, frustration, and fear ‒ had built up inside me that it just had to come out. 

After having stared up at a massive black gash across the shining silver face of World Trade Center 1, I feared a dystopian nightmare ‒ a parallel universe ‒  that was far worse.

After an incredibly busy two decades in the disaster business, I was frustrated at our glacial pace of progress in preparedness in the US, in spite of all of the best efforts of emergency managers in towns and cities and rural areas all across it.  A uniquely human emotion called hope, so important and useful in our daily lives, undermined our best efforts to get ready.  There it was, the Brick Wall of Hope, causing complacency and denial everywhere, not only in normal people but in emergency managers too.

After responding to 9/11 and H1N1 and Hurricane Sandy, I was fed up with government officials who always showed up for the “big job” but never took ownership of any part of it.  Unlike their counterparts at the state and local level, federal officials don’t engage actual citizens.  A strong “don’t go native” culture, built on fear, permeates the vast federal bureaucracy.  I wanted to create awareness around this huge problem during major disaster and this was the driving force for the book.

And then, in mid-December 2019, patients began to show up in hospital emergency rooms in Wuhan, China with a mix of wintry symptoms: fever, trouble breathing and cough. It looked like viral pneumonia, but doctors could not pinpoint the cause. Rumors of a mysterious new virus started to swirl on social media, first in China and then around the world.

As the plague began to ravage Wuhan’s urban streets, Americans used random posts and tweets of information and misinformation to build mental walls around their fear. They hid behind their Brick Walls of Hope to deny the reality that was before their eyes.

And then, as it reached our shores, we watched as the Federal Emergency Management Agency tried to distance itself from it. Agency officials have testified before Congress that they didn’t know what anybody else was doing before they took over the country’s fractured response in mid-March. At the same time, the President frantically worked to shield himself from ownership of the crisis by repeatedly asserting that his federal agencies were doing a “GREAT job of handling Coronavirus.”[2] 

Nobody was fooled. After all, Americans rely on their government to do battle with the black swan. We, the emergency managers, own the problem. In the case of Covid-19, this is the core of our national disgrace. The consequences of this failure to own played out slowly as the nation, and the world, watched in dismay.

But within every failure lies the seeds of opportunity. And, with our great national weakness so stunningly revealed, now is not the time for timidity.  America doesn’t need incremental change. We can’t just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, like we did after the Hurricane Katrina and Andrew responses and so many other disasters in the past. We must fundamentally change disaster response in this country, once and for all, by taking ownership of the catastrophe. Only emergency managers can build the systems and processes that bring the nation together in our most desperate moments to save vast numbers of our fellow citizens.

The coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe, more than 65 million people have been infected and more than 1.5 million killed. Believe it or not, though, pandemics are among the least challenging of catastrophes. Governments and healthcare systems have spent enormous time and effort in the post-9/11 era preparing for them. Disaster professionals can see them coming, way off in the distance. And, as it was with Wuhan, they have the luxury of time to get organized; to gather resources and get ready.

This is not true of “no-notice” catastrophes like massive earthquakes or large-scale terror attacks. The response to these is much more difficult, requiring an instantaneous and complex marriage of strategy and tactics. To do this, emergency managers must connect together a national team, a team of teams, in minutes. Centered on the Emergency Operations Center, this great national team must achieve synchronicity with elected leadership, across a breathtaking array of crises and a huge affected area.

The next catastrophe will start suddenly and monstrously, with the biggest problems and greatest needs coming in its earliest hours. These early hours—emergency managers call them the “golden hours”—will be a time of maximum chaos. Our ownership stake during the golden hours, and the actions we take then, will determine our fate”

[1] McKinney, Kelly. Moment of Truth: the Nature of Catastrophes and How to Prepare for Them. Savio Republic, 2018

[2] “CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus,” February 25, 2020, @realdonaldtrump tweet

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