Bryan Norcross Perspective: Thinking of the coronavirus emergency in hurricane terms
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – At my local Publix Saturday afternoon, South Florida people were in emergency mode: thinking, focused, courteous and determined to be ready. The vibe was reminiscent of how we feel when a potential hurricane is just over the horizon.
That got me thinking how similar this crisis is to a hurricane emergency. In most ways, it’s very similar, which might help us think more clearly about it.
Here are some of my thoughts:
1. EVERY INDIVIDUAL CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE: We all know that people who prepare well for a hurricane have a much better post-storm experience than people who wait until the last minute or don’t prepare at all. This situation is exactly the same. If you don’t follow the rules, which are designed to keep you safe -- and keep you from spreading the virus to others -- you are rolling the dice. The chances increase that you will lose, which means getting sick or making other people sick -- perhaps dangerously so.
2. SMALL ODDS ADD UP: The odds of catching the virus on any one day are very low, but as the days go by, the cumulative odds increase. So the odds of any one of us becoming infected over the next month or two become significant. The parallel here is that the odds of a hurricane hitting South Florida in any one year are always low. But if you live here long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll go through a damaging hurricane landfall.
3. MISLEADING TERMS: Just like the term “major hurricane” is ridiculously misleading -- neither Sandy or Ike would fit into that category -- the statement that 80% of the people who contract the coronavirus will have a “mild” case is dangerously confusing. “Mild” cases -- as they define it -- include those with mild pneumonia. Yes, with pneumonia. Nobody gets pneumonia if they are not really sick and in danger of getting sicker. The point is, “mild” is not the right word for a category that combines truly mild cases -- as normal humans understand that term -- with seriously ill people.
4. MANGLED MESSAGING: Imagine a hurricane is a few days offshore and every TV channel and public official is saying something different. Everybody would be confused. And confusion can lead to paralysis -- i.e. delayed reaction. A version of that exists with the coronavirus, of course. There is no clear, articulate voice that we can rely on for accurate information. Thankfully, cumulatively, an assemblage of credible voices inside and outside the government have led us to a reasonable understanding of the threat, and it is daunting.
5. LONG-TERM PREPARATION WORKS: Miami-Dade County led the building-code charge after Hurricane Andrew, insisting that new buildings be usable after strong hurricanes in the future. Broward County followed suit, and now, new and retrofitted homes and businesses are designed to be safe in a strong storm. This is what government is for -- to protect people. When I was on a committee at Miami-Dade Emergency Management after 9/11, we discussed how we would surge hospital or isolation capacity in case of a pandemic or bioterrorism attack. At that time, there were empty K-Mart stores that seemed like possible candidates. Meticulous planning, like that, for unlikely but potentially catastrophic events is a critical role of government. When this is over, there will and should be a lot of discussion about our government’s lack of readiness, and its sputtering performance in the early days of the outbreak. But that discussion is for another day.
6. SHORT-TERM PREPARATION WORKS: We all know that stocking up, putting up shutters, and evacuating if necessary, all contribute to successfully riding a hurricane. In this emergency, we know the equivalent actions as well. Keep your distance from other people. Meet outside. Don’t breathe someone else’s air. Wash your hands when you come inside. All of these things work and can make a big difference, but just like in a strong hurricane, there is no such thing as 100% safe.
7. WORKING TOGETHER IS CRITICAL: We know how important it is to help friends and neighbors, and especially the elderly, through a hurricane and its aftermath. The same ethic applies in this crisis. The more steps we individually take to stay uninfected, and encourage others to do the same, the better we will do as individuals and as a community.
8. SOME PEOPLE ARE GOING TO BE IRRESPONSIBLE: There are people after every hurricane who say, “I never knew it was going to be so bad,” when they are asked why they didn’t prepare. People with that mentality are still packing bars and whooping it up. Every one of them increases the risk of infection to themselves and all of us. This in turn increases the probability that a bigger, more extensive shutdown will be required -- actions European countries have had to take. Every friend or family member we can encourage to conduct themselves responsibly will help us all.
9. IT IS COMING: There came a time as Hurricane Andrew was approaching South Florida that I said, “We can no longer hope it is not going to happen. It is going to happen for Dade County tonight.” The coronavirus outbreak IS GOING TO HAPPEN. The only question is whether we can work together so that it is somewhat manageable. In any case, it is 100% certain that it is going to get a lot worse.
10. EXTREME NATURAL DISASTERS HAPPEN, BUT NOT VERY OFTEN: The coronavirus crisis feels like a movie because none of us have experienced anything like it before. But that doesn’t mean it has never happened. My father remembered his father’s stories about coffins piled up at train yards in 1918 from the so-called Spanish Flu. The last regional mega-hurricane disaster in South Florida was in 1926. It affected all of both Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The fact that these near-catastrophic events don’t happen very often, obviously, doesn’t mean they haven’t happened in the past and can’t happen again.
11. TINY THINGS CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING: Leaving one shutter off one window could begin a cascade of damage that makes a house uninhabitable after a super-strong hurricane. Similarly, allowing yourself to breathe in the air of an infected person -- whether they are outwardly sick or not -- will change everything for you and your family. Stay vigilant. It’s the only way.
12. BLIND IS VERY BAD: Up until about 60 years ago, when a hurricane was threatening, we couldn’t see it -- electronically speaking. With few coastal radars and no satellites, all we had were the advisories from the National Hurricane Center. Our inability to do widespread testing for the coronavirus is an analogous shortcoming. We are blind to the scope of the problem. Only the tests can tell us which people are safe to mix with. Why we don’t have tests is irrelevant now. We have to live with the blindness for a while. This puts an additional premium on responsible behavior NOW. We are all in this together.
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