The United States has not faced in decades a pandemic threat like the one posed by the coronavirus today — arguably, not since the 1918 flu. Now that it is here, while the most critical advice must come from epidemiologists and other medical professionals — not atmospheric scientists like me — it’s worth noting the common elements among different types of disasters.
The coronavirus has been likened to climate change, but since the response to global warming has been poor to date, that comparison offers more insight into what hasn’t worked than what has.
As for weather disasters, our response to powerful storms in recent years has improved dramatically. The coronavirus has been called, with some justification, a “slow-motion hurricane.” Despite the many clear differences, here are some lessons from actual hurricanes that could aid the coronavirus response.
Getting ahead of the curve is key.
In the days before Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, the challenges of a potential major hurricane landfall in the New York Metro area had been studied by experts for decades. That knowledge base, and the seasoned professionals leading and serving key agencies — from the New York City Office of Emergency Management to the National Weather Service and FEMA — gave state and local leaders the lead time that decades of improvement in weather forecasting had bought. They also gave solid guidance regarding the best emergency management decisions that could be taken in those days.
The authorities made use of both.
Mike Bloomberg, then mayor, and Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey knew to close the area’s transit systems a day ahead of time and to order evacuations.
President Barack Obama, having seen the failures of the Hurricane Katrina response seven years earlier, began exercising the muscle of the federal government early, ordering FEMA and other agencies to start moving people and supplies into place in high-risk areas several days before landfall.
Not every decision was perfect, but all this preparation kept the number of deaths significantly lower than it could otherwise have been.
Leaders need to be on the same page.
Right after Sandy made landfall, Mr. Obama went to New Jersey to meet with Mr. Christie, who was not just a member of the opposing political party, but also one of the most prominent media surrogates for Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s opponent in the presidential election that was only eight days away.
The two leaders shook hands and agreed to work together, without rancor and to the best of their ability, putting the well-being of their constituents above any political calculus. Besides enabling their staffs to work together better, this also publicly communicated the gravity of the situation and modeled the spirit of unqualified cooperation that the recovery would require.
Not everyone will make wise choices.
Some people will underreact to warnings no matter what. During Sandy, some people in the highest-risk areas didn’t evacuate, and some of them died. In several cases, this was because they had heeded similar warnings before Hurricane Irene hit the year before, and those warnings hadn’t panned out. This is somewhat like comparing Covid-19 to the flu, or H1N1 or SARS.
Other people will overreact, or react in counterproductive ways — such as buying all the hand sanitizer in stores to resell at a premium.
There’s no way to completely prevent these behaviors, but authority figures addressing people directly and personally can help. For example, Gary Szatkowski, lead weather forecaster in New Jersey, issued a stark, emotional warning to convince people to evacuate from the barrier islands before Sandy hit, inviting anyone who felt he was overhyping the danger to call him and “yell at me all you want.”
In fact, anyone can do this. Last week, my son, who is majoring in biology in college, was remarkably effective in convincing his four grandparents to take more serious social isolation measures. By patiently explaining the risks, he has appealed to their intellects, and by demonstrating the seriousness of his own concern for them, he has helped them grasp the gravity of the situation emotionally as well.
Every individual matters.
Sometimes, disasters can bring out the best in people. Images of private citizens in boats rescuing strangers off roofs after Hurricane Katrina were truly uplifting, even as the larger scene in which they occurred was devastating.
With this disaster, even more than with a hurricane, we will need to rely on each other, on a much larger scale and for a much longer time than any of us are accustomed to. We need young and healthy people to take all possible measures not to get the virus — even at possible cost to themselves, and even though their own risk of suffering serious harm from the virus is very low — in order to slow the spread for the benefit of those most at risk.
And as economic activity declines with widespread social isolation, we need those whose livelihoods are not at risk to give some consideration to those whose are, and support them.
But leaders are still critical.
But we won’t do our best if it’s all on us as individuals. If we are to be as collectively minded as this slow-motion disaster calls for, we need our leaders to show, in their actions and their words, that they have all of our best interests at heart. We may be extremely divided politically, but we share physical, biological and economic space, and that makes us all connected by this virus.
This moment, as events on the ground finally force us to grasp the threat of the virus with greater clarity, is the moment the hurricane starts to make landfall.
In the United States, there is an increasing realization that our government wasted the time that scientific prediction — and the experiences of China, Italy and other countries — bought us.
Starting around a week ago, in the absence of either widespread testing or guidance from the top on social distancing measures, state and local governments, as well as the private sector and individuals, stepped up and began to take actions on their own, before the Trump administration finally began to take the problem seriously. But much more action is needed. Only the federal government can muster the kind of large-scale coordination — and resources — that a slow-motion hurricane, simultaneously striking everywhere, demands.
Adam Sobel is an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University and author of “Storm Surge,” a book about Superstorm Sandy. He has a podcast called “Deep Convection” on climate, science and life.