Reporter's Notebook

Disaster USA
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Below are all the related items to David Graham’s essay on emergency preparedness in the United States, “The Mothers of All Disasters.”

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Fighting a Quake with Counterinsurgency

FEMA had a problem. The disaster planners were contemplating what they’d do if an earthquake struck the New Madrid seismic zone, north of Memphis. The area isn’t especially active at the moment, but quakes there in 1811 and 1812 rang church bells in Boston and caused the Mississippi River to run backwards.

Unlike the better-known quake risks in Los Angeles or the Pacific Northwest, the challenge isn’t collapsing skyscrapers or a tsunami. It’s making sure people are OK in the innumerable single-family homes sparsely strewn across the seven-state affected area. FEMA has 28 urban search-and-rescue teams, but they’re designed for heavy-duty situations like large building collapses—not thousands of comparatively simple one- and two-story house rescues.

Despairing, FEMA asked the Defense Department for help—maybe engineering units that could sweep in and assist. Craig Fugate, FEMA’s director, recalls what happened:

Does it ever feel like there are more and more headlines about apocalyptic forest fires, droughts, and blizzards? It’s not a mirage or a media creation:

If your job is to prepare for and respond to major natural disasters around the U.S., this is obviously going to affect the way you do your job. But don’t expect the nation’s top disaster planner to debate climate change.

“People want to debate the causes, I’m like, ‘Have a nice day.’ I feel consequences,” Craig Fugate, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told me recently. “Whether you want to say climate is a naturally occurring variable, whether you want to say it’s changing based on carbon-emitting fossil fuels, or if it’s divine interventions, throwing snowballs in the Senate well is not the answer.”

(That last line, if you missed it, is a shot at James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican senator and notorious climate-change denier who brought a chunk of the white fluffy stuff into the Capitol in February, suggesting it debunked global warming.)

A gas station in Staten Island following Superstorm Sandy (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

The best way to turn Americans against something is to call it rationing. The notion of scarcity sends them into paroxysms of fear that they’re sliding into the third world.

But sometimes a little rationing isn’t such a bad thing, argues Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One of his major projects has been to rethink the way the government responds to disasters. For example, he wants to start referring to people who have been through a disaster as “survivors” rather than “victims,” and he gets irritated about the tendency among planners to treat the public as a passive, helpless mass. (For much more on his idea of “whole-community” response, read my extended Q&A with him.)

Take gasoline supply. Disasters naturally lead to shortages, but government officials have a mortal fear of using the “r” word, Fugate said, summarizing their mentality as, “That’s a bad thing to do because then the people will panic.”

In reality, he said, it’s often the opposite.

After Superstorm Sandy hit three years ago, long queues built up to fuel up outside filling stations. Stories of the chaos as drivers tried to fuel up conjured scenes of apocalypse, or at least the 1973 oil embargo.

In other words, people were already panicked. Then the governors of New Jersey and New York instituted gas rationing. A recipe for disaster, right?

“On the day they went to rationing, there was rationality back in the market,” Fugate told me. “Demand went down. And nothing had changed, other than people said, ‘Well, now there’s a plan!’”

That’s an important lesson about how the public actually reacts, versus the way officials imagine it might react. Simply knowing there’s a plan for coordinating after a disaster instills a (reasonable) sense of confidence among citizens and allows them to try get back to normal life, rather than frantically trying to stockpile.

“This whole perception that the public would panic at the idea of rationing, meaning we don’t have enough gas—well, they were not doing rational buying in the first place,” Fugate said. “It again comes back to this idea that the public is a liability and you should treat them as such, as children.”

Each science-based blockbuster provides new chances for scientists to squirm: They’re glad that the occasionally arcane topic they’ve devoted their lives to studying is getting some public attention, but the misconstruals of science that big-screen treatment often entails undermine the educational effect.

While reporting my story on the biggest disasters that threaten the U.S., I heard similar sentiments from seismologists. The problem is particularly acute for them—their worry isn’t just that people will have the wrong idea about space, but that they’ll die or be injured because they don’t understand how earthquakes work.

Take San Andreas, this year’s vehicle for action star The Rock.

Real-life Lucy Jones, a USGS seismologist, has been particularly vocal about trying to get Angelenos to prepare for a big quake, and she spent the last year working on a project with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office to better prepare the city. Her work snagged her an invite to the premiere of the film in May, where she walked the red carpet and posed with The Rock. That didn’t stop her from a Tyson-esque tweetstorm factchecking the film, with generous portions of both plaudits and facepalms:

In the end, she hoped that the movie might at least spur some preparedness.

By the time I talked to Dr. Jones in August, she seemed a bit more glum about the movie’s message of total collapse. “You either believe it, and then it’s impossible to prepare—it’s all going to be armageddon—or else you don’t believe, and you dismiss the whole thing,” she told me. “In that sense I think it wasn’t that useful to have a movie like that.”

John Vidale, a professor at the University of Washington who also leads the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, had a similar experience.“The San Andreas movie, it was really fun. We took the whole seismic network over and watched it,” he told me. “We were kind of giggling through the whole thing. You know, it’s spectacular.”

Even if much of the film is fantasy, he said, the general feeling in the seismic community is that it’s acceptable, or even important, to exaggerate in the service of awareness: “These long-term risks are something people won’t adequately prepare for if they don’t have a fire lit under them from time to time.”

Meanwhile, The Rock has been busy averting other disasters:

Here's a fun Labor Day weekend story... We just decided to add two new members to our Johnson family. Baby French Bulldogs. In my right hand is BRUTUS and in my left hand is HOBBS. Bring them home and immediately take them outside so they can start learning how to "handle their business and potty like big boys". I set them both down and they both take off in a full sprint and fall right into the deep end of our pool. HOBBS immediately starts doggy paddling while BRUTUS (like a brick) sink heads first to the bottom of the pool. I take off into a full sprint, fully clothed, dive in the pool, swim to the bottom, rescue my brick, I mean BRUTUS and bring him back to the edge of the pool. He was a little delirious.. took a moment, threw up all the water he swallowed and looked up at me as if to say, "Thank God you didn't have to give me mouth to mouth!" and then ran off to play with his brother. A few lessons I've learned today.. A) Not all puppies have the instinct to doggie paddle. B) Some puppies (like BRUTUS) will be so in shock by experiencing water they will sink extremely fast so react quick. C) While spiriting to save your puppies life, before you dive in, try and throw your cel phone to safety. Don't keep it in your pocket... like I did. #BRUTUSLives #HOBBSCanSwim #MyCelPhonesDead #AndNoMouthToMouthNeeded #HappyLaborDay

A photo posted by therock (@therock) on