As the latest Atlantic hurricane spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, 90 miles to the north, roadways were empty. A little rain fell on a city closed tighter than a drum.
The lucky people of Miami retreated behind walls from fitful gusts of wind, but if the next disaster is pandemic flu there will be no lucky people and nowhere to hide.The rampant spread through bird populations in Southeast Asia of a killer strain of avian influenza called H5N1 is eerily similar to the gathering of clouds where warm ocean waters and prevailing winds fuel typhoons and hurricanes.
When H5N1 infects humans, it is extraordinarily lethal. Were a similarly lethal strain of virus to become easily transmittable among humans, the resultant flu pandemic would be catastrophic.
As a species, we are builders. We move fast, manipulating resources and technologies. We are inclined to optimism and to find silver linings in misfortune. We are at the pinnacle of 100,000 generations of material progress.
Today, the global population exceeds 6 billion. In our success and opportunism, we are a little like the flu virus that is chasing us.
Staring down the long tunnel of pandemic flu requires a cold, gimlet eye. Polite company doesn’t want to linger on the chaos in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: when hospitals were overrun and criminals inflicted demands of their drug addiction after police protection melted away.
Here is what we learned from the most recent hurricane that devastated coastal Mississippi and Louisiana. Its lessons may be helpful in anticipating how to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness during a flu pandemic that could last a year or more.
The first lesson of New Orleans is that the glue binding civil society easily dissolves in the absence of essential services.
Second, what helped people most once those services had disappeared were small networks at the neighborhood level, whether civic organizations or congregations.
Anything we do to prepare for a flu pandemic must take these two lessons into full account.
In a worst-case scenario, a pandemic as lethal to humans as H5N1 influenza, the advantages of our “just in time” global economy would turn into liabilities almost immediately.
Consumers in the developed world rely on systems, components and logistics that are highly specialized and, as a result, vulnerable to massive failure.
Critical industries and public utilities would have to put in place cross-training of key personnel and divert financial resources to build diversified, redundant systems with surge capacity to ensure delivery of essential services in the case that pandemic flu cripples large-scale delivery systems and supply chains.
A second requirement would be to ensure capacity to protect public safety at the neighborhood level, including satellite-telephone communication, planning for sanitary emergency clinics in auditoriums and school gyms, and building the capacity to supply food close to population centers.
The hurricane that engulfed coastal Louisiana and Mississippi was a disaster that experts had predicted for decades. Government officials did not react well to the threat, the event, and only gradually are responding to the aftermath.
That this behavior is predictable must be taken into account by the very people we trust to do a better job. It is the argument for urgency and creativity. It is the argument for putting useless, partisan sniping aside.
What is needed now is for decision-makers to come together, take a good look at what is happening in Southeast Asia, imagine the worst-case scenario and get moving to protect the public.
If they do, they will recognize the need for special legislative sessions and begin now, because the lead time to put any of these measures into place may be unbridgeable.
Writing on pandemic flu is not easy, much less thinking about. My wife, every inch a practical mother, doesn’t want to hear about it.
My father was a Holocaust survivor, and I never needed a textbook to know the angels of better judgment can vanish quickly from civil society in a perfect storm.
I hope there is never a day when management of corpses tops the list of what is required to maintain public morale, that new, effective vaccinations can be discovered, mass produced and distributed to billions of people in time, and that all that will emerge from this worry is nonsense.
This is what I hope for. But what I know is this: The time to concentrate resources to mitigate the effects of pandemic flu is here and now.