The pandemic is already undeniably traumatic, enough to make people unwilling to consider that the situation could, in fact, worsen. But geoscientists and emergency managers don’t have that choice. They have to ruminate on the unthinkable, because that’s the only way they can prepare themselves, and the public, to navigate a confluence of calamities.
Short of a medical miracle, the coronavirus scourge will persist in America into the foreseeable future. And the odds of a disaster not happening during that time are low. How will the country, whose attention remains glued to the pandemic, handle a synchronous act of destruction?
Hurricanes and wildfires, weather phenomena often associated with disasters, are seasonal and, therefore, inevitable. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, explains that both become possible in May, before usually becoming most frequent and potent from late summer through early fall. This year, meteorologists are forecasting a greater than average number of major Atlantic hurricanes—unwelcome in normal times, but especially so this year. If states are wildly successful in implementing their infection-prevention measures, Swain says, their respective COVID-19 peaks may be pushed back to late summer. In other words, right when hurricanes and wildfires may be running rampant.
Geological hazards, however, are more temporally random. America has 161 active volcanoes, about one-tenth of the Earth’s total. Although none near major population centers is exhibiting worrying signs of unrest, there is a nonzero chance that a destructive eruption could occur during the pandemic.
At least volcanoes tend to noticeably act up prior to a potential outburst, says Sara McBride, a disaster researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey. “Earthquakes can be real bastards,” McBride told me. They happen with essentially no known warning, making them “the most impolite of geohazards.”
Major temblors are also an inevitability on many of America’s faults. The probability of a magnitude-6.7 quake in the Los Angeles area within the next 30 years is 60 percent. In the San Francisco Bay Area, that rises to 72 percent. “We know that a big earthquake”—a proverbial Big One—“could happen any day,” says Ken Hudnut, an earthquake geophysicist with the USGS. “It could happen during COVID-19.”
Read: Is Middle America due for a huge earthquake?
Hundreds of preexisting plans deal with individual disaster scenarios. The problem is that these plans don’t account for a pandemic happening at the same time. It may be overused, but “unprecedented is the word,” says Becky DePodwin, a meteorologist and emergency-preparedness specialist at AccuWeather. “There’s no playbook for this.”
Right now, emergency managers are laser-focused on the pandemic response. “Our normal systems right now are pretty much running at their full capacity,” Terbush says. In pre-pandemic times, states could ask one another to lend a hand if one was overwhelmed by a disaster. But today, the coronavirus has all 50 of them in individual viselike grips. In some respects, it’s every state for itself.