By K R R Carpenter and George Fechter
I am sheltering in place like most Americans, which allows time for reflection on the Covid-19 threat, the imperative of social distancing, the wearing of masks and the need for constant hand-washing.
The computer models show us that this pandemic may take between 200,000 and 2,000,000 US lives, an intimidating number either way. We’ve been asking why we weren’t better prepared. Why so few test kits, unlike what South Korea had, why so few ventilators and treatments? Can we take the lesson learned about preparedness to help get ready for the next disaster?
My mind wanders to my other dreaded fear, the start of hurricane season on June 1. Most years, we experience about a dozen named storms and 2–4 major hurricanes, but this year we are forecast to have more. It’s not impossible that one of our pandemic-ridden Atlantic coastal states could be slammed by a Category 5 hurricane.
When Virginia declared a state of emergency as Hurricane Dorian, a Cat 3 storm, came barreling up the coast, punishing floodwaters and prolonged winds followed. Yet coastal Virginians were lucky, as the hurricane made landfall briefly at Cape Hatteras, then moved offshore.
What if the first hurricane of the summer makes landfall in the middle of the coronavirus lock-down? Of those coastal residents in the path of the storm, many might already be sick, not able to board up the house and get to a shelter. Many could be elderly, some might be on ventilators when the lights go out. If local high schools and race tracks have already been converted to make-shift hospitals, then where will evacuees shelter? Or will they be allowed to shelter together at all, while coughing and highly contagious?
I can imagine the pandemonium of these two overlapping disasters, one requiring extreme separation while the other forces people into tight spaces together.
A vaccine for coronavirus is in development now, and we are grateful for the tireless efforts of the scientists developing it. Imagine if we had already had that vaccine ready last fall when the epidemic started?
We do have the vaccine for the other calamity ready now. The elevation and flood-proofing strategy for coastal homes and businesses is tested and ready to go. This highly effective vaccine against coastal inundation is already up and working in parts of Florida, and we’ve seen it moving up the coast.
We can vaccinate Virginia now. Florida too, and most of the Southeast coastline of the US. What are we waiting for?
Coronavirus is teaching us not to wait until after the disaster to prepare a vaccination strategy, and if it’s already ready to go, don’t wait to administer it. We should make the commitment to prepare for the impacts of sea level rise which batter our coasts and low-lying inland areas every year.
Like hurricanes, which come in summer and fall, polio used to strike in the warmer months. Late summer was dubbed “polio season”, pools were closed, movie theater patrons had to sit separated by several seats. By the 1950s, polio had become one of the deadliest diseases among US children. In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children were infected with the virus; thousands were paralyzed, more than 3,000 died.
The search for the polio vaccine took many years and countless dollars, but when it was perfected, it worked fast; by the early sixties, it was protecting millions of children. The University of Pittsburgh where Dr. Salk’s vaccine was developed has just announced they are close to testing a new vaccine candidate for coronavirus, and we’re feeling hopeful.
But the vaccine for coastal inundation is ready to be implemented now. Yet I don’t see the big plan being unveiled, I don’t feel the urgency. For hurricanes and coastal flooding, we need a national commitment on the level of any other public health crisis, as this enemy also kills, maims, destroys property and wreaks havoc on the economy.
Public health disasters are not only horrific in human loss, but also in financial loss. We are already in a recession, and know that it’s going to get worse. Covid-19 now involves an initial $2.2 trillion in Federal funding and may consume an estimated 10% of our GDP. What would the cost be when compounded by a hurricane, in terms of loss of life, loss of income and the continuation of the crippling anxiety that so many of us already feel.
When the number of coronavirus cases finally begins to decline, I hope we can remember this lesson about the value of preparedness? There is a natural human tendency to revert to the norm, not learn from past disasters, not become better prepared for future disasters. My dreaded fear is that Covid-19 and a major hurricane might be coincidental, and that we won’t be ready.
We need to get ready. We can do better. We must do better.