Similar to pandemic preparedness, the U.S. government is not doing enough to prepare for failure of municipal water systems when the electric grid goes down. Government programs do not address loss of law and order or cessation of food production and delivery services. Elected and appointed officials often downplay the number of deaths to be expected and the lack of preventative measures. They also do not acknowledge people taking advantage of stresses on law enforcement to loot and maraud in the event of a collapse. Swift action is needed now to mitigate potential consequences of a future triggered collapse.
Official government-funded reports of Katrina, Congressional testimony on Dark Winter, and Congressional testimony from the EMP Commission acknowledge that expectations of major disasters should include panic, riot, looting, and murder. However, in the 2006 National Planning Scenarios, there is only a footnote mention of social unrest:
Disclaimer: Disaster literature has established that people don’t panic or act irrationally in a disaster as long as they have credible information and purposeful activities to undertake in response. While one must plan for the worst, this is not a prediction of violence and mass panic. There is no evidence that the public will respond in a lawless manner in a real influenza pandemic.
The disclaimer acknowledges panic and violence while denying they will occur, then insisting that they must plan for the worst while refusing to do so because they assume panic and violence will not occur. The document also includes “maintaining security in communities” in a list of emergency management responses.
Reasons Behind Not Preparing
The pandemic scenario itself is anything but planning for the worst. It assumes a low fatality rate, only 10% worker absenteeism, and no consequences from any ensuing violence. In sum, the National Planning Scenarios are designed to ensure that government preparations look good, but not necessarily plan or prepare for high-likelihood consequences of major disasters. In addition to bad press and political-bureaucratic factors, major reasons the federal government is not addressing the need to prepare for a pandemic are outlined below:
- The Department of Health and Human Services is lead agency on pandemic planning, while also a significant supporter of bioengineering research.
- Scaring the public about bioengineering or encouraging regulations could stifle U.S. research being conducted by scientists, universities, and biomedical companies.
- Only a small percentage of victims can be hospitalized and treated. Since it takes six months or more to develop a vaccine for a new flu variant or genetically modified organism (GMO) virus, hospital beds and vaccine administration has to be prioritized.
- Hardening the electric system and reducing its vulnerability would cost tens of billions, with increases in rates that will lead to loss of votes for elected officials.
- Estimating that millions of Americans may die – and stating that it cannot be prevented – is detrimental to elected officials.
- Government officials do not explicitly address impacts of looting, breakdown in law and order, stealing, and sometimes killing to obtain food.
- Ethical issues of a pandemic are controversial: who gets medical treatment and supplies determines life and death, and many people will never receive them.
- Preparations like equipping the Federal Emergency Management Agency or National Guard for crowd control could lead some conspiracy/anti-government critics to protest government takeover preparations. For example, President Bush’s call for military support in a pandemic and preparations for dealing with law and order problems were condemned by groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Cato Institute.
- Standard “prepper” measures like having guns and ammunition to protect homes as well as food and water are politically controversial for governments to address.
- No big company or organization stands to benefit from increased preparedness for a pandemic, so there is no lobbying similar to that for a weapons system acquisition.
- Officials who warn of vulnerabilities may be accused of tipping off terrorists.
- Government officials want to avoid charges of scare mongering and overreaction, which were raised following the 2009 swine flu and other warnings of flu pandemics that did not occur.
- The Department of Defense (DOD), which is the federal agency most capable of dealing with a collapse, focuses on and leads overseas operations, with little interest in pandemic recovery operations, where Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is lead.
The reluctance to warn and prepare for what many scientists say is inevitable – a natural avian flu pandemic or a bioengineered virus attack – is reprehensible, but understandable. Spending billions to harden the electric system will increase electric costs and anger voters. Until the first instance of disaster, it is doubtful there will be strong action to prepare for a pandemic, loss of the electric system, or other disaster-caused collapse. Politicians can avoid some responsibility because of public assumptions that government is watching out for them, despite periodic warnings in the newspapers.
Black Swan Events
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is the nation’s leading agency for protecting against weapons of mass destruction, warned in 2012 that the nation faces the “inevitable emergency of a new threat from biological and chemical agents.” The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, the international police agency INTERPOL, and the former president of the Royal Society of London all warn that bioterror attacks could kill millions. When Dr. Henderson, who led the World Health Organization global smallpox eradication campaign, estimated in 2012 that a human transmissible form of Avian flu could injure and kill billions, that was a credible warning of an existential threat.
Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable offers insights into why warnings of these pending disasters are ignored. A black swan is an extreme impact event that is outside the realm of regular expectations; nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Concerning such events, Taleb warned that, “things have a bias to appear more stable and less risky in the past, leading us to surprises…. The history of epidemics, narrowly studied, does not suggest the risks of the great plague to come that will dominate the planet.”
Taleb cited 27 widespread errors in human thinking processes and misapplications of statistics to explain why black swan disasters like a coming bioengineered viral pandemic or North Korean EMP attack that takes down the electric system are neglected. People cling to current truths and past experiences that new technologies and changing conditions may soon render wrong. Taleb cited as examples the diaries of people prior to WWII – they did not know that something momentous was taking place, that large-scale war was coming.
“Disaster blindness” for a bioengineered viral pandemic may be stronger in the United States because of a strong military and feeling of immunity from attack. This is precisely why a bioengineered viral pandemic is a likely weapon of choice for attacking the United States. It could kill more people than a large nuclear attack, cause more lasting devastation, and create an economic collapse. In addition, retaliation is less likely since the origin of the attack is difficult to prove who released the virus. If the attackers developed a vaccine, they could also avoid the worst impacts of the devastation as it spreads around the world.
Action Plan for the Government & Citizens to Prepare for a Collapse
Citizens need honest disclosure of the nation’s many vulnerabilities:
- The likelihood of a natural or bioengineered pandemic and difficulty to prevent it;
- The fragility of the nation’s electric system, and warning that the grid could go down for a year or more;
- Disclosure of dozens of other threats, known (pandemics, asteroids, super volcanoes, cyberattacks, etc.) as well as black swan, largely unknown, and new threats (nanotechnology disaster, artificial intelligence misuse, etc.); and
- Frankness in admitting that the economy may not function and law and order may be lost.
According to experts like Dr. Arturo Casadevall, Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Division of Infectious Diseases at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, preventing bioattacks and pandemics is not possible. During a Bioterrorism International Tabletop Exercise in 2007, Ronald K. Noble, Secretary General of INTERPOL, also called for accepting the inevitability of bioattacks and preparing to manage them.
Since it is not possible to prevent small nation states, terrorist groups, or dedicated individuals from modifying viruses and unleashing a pandemic, honest and responsible acceptance would help warn and prepare communities for the aftermath of pandemics and other highly possible collapse-level disasters. However, there does not need to be a disastrous trigger event for communities to experience widespread loss of law and order. A sudden economic downturn or a disputed election could – with the aid of social media, press hysteria, hostility toward government, and opposing political parties – escalate and degenerate into a collapse.
Every person needs to be prepared for a collapse, that could last for months or worse. The focus should be on dealing with a collapse more than specific trigger events. Citizens should know that they need the means to protect themselves when law enforcement is overwhelmed and there is a breakdown in law and order. People in big cities should be advised to consider plans and preparations to get out, since supplying major cities and maintaining law and order there will be particularly difficult.
For most Americans, sheltering at home, the ability to get food and potable water, while feeling safe from marauders, may be the most critical need in avoiding a collapse in the economy, lawlessness, and potentially high casualties from the disorder that ensues. Military support to back up law enforcement, directly transport or escort civilian truck drivers, and distribute food and vaccines (or protect food retailers), may be decisive in avoiding a collapse and far more casualties.
To reduce the breakdown in law and order, escort truck drivers, and move key suppliers, the Army National Guard needs to be trained and equipped to conduct crowd control and massive support of local law enforcement. Although the Guard and Reserve do a formidable job in domestic disaster, it is not expected that all members will report to or stay on duty during a long-term collapse if they cannot be sure their families are safe.
Due to a potential decrease in active and reserve military during a long-term collapse, state and local governments should pursue a massive expansion in reserve law enforcement forces:
- Encourage all separated and retired law enforcement and military personnel to join in local law enforcement emergency reserve forces
- Do not subject reserve policemen to huge training requirements, make them study local laws, or burden them with onerous regulations.
- Let them get quick, simple, minimal training in serving as guards and truck escorts.
- Stockpile small arms and ammunition for them.
- Issue uniforms labeling them as reserve police forces.
- Follow the National Guard model (and consider drills with and getting trained by Army Guard MPs and Air Guard Security Police)
- Conduct periodic (but much less than one weekend a month) paid training.
- Favor using them in their hometowns so they can serve as reserve policemen in their community and also keep watch over their homes.
The Pentagon should create a Civil Ground Patrol, modeled on the all-volunteer, Air Force sponsored Civil Air Patrol, to start training civilians to assist with pandemic response and recovery operations. The Army National Guard, not DHS, would be the best sponsor for Civil Ground Patrol. Civil Ground Patrol units should be dual aligned with a local law enforcement agency and the state Army Guard, and train with both organizations.
Although these are just some of the preparations needed, these are relatively low-cost solutions compared to purchasing an additional aircraft carrier or adding an armored division to the Army. Barriers for government officials and politicians to implement these vital preparedness measures include the risk of spending funds and raising costs to citizens for measures the public is not demanding and businesses and special interest groups do not offer as campaign donations. Law enforcement’s priority in a disaster is to ensure continuity of government. However, while police assets are allocated to guard City Hall, congressmen, mayors, and city councilmen, citizens will lack responses to their calls for help. In a collapse, elected officials would be more incentivized to address security concerns and better prepare for collapse if they knew they would not receive priority protection.
This article is Part 6 of a six-part series on closing disaster recovery gaps and preparing for triggering events that could cascade into long-term societal disruptions:
Triggered Collapse, Part 1: A Nation Unprepared
Triggered Collapse, Part 2: Viral Pandemics
Triggered Collapse, Part 3: Lessons in Lawlessness
Triggered Collapse, Part 4: Cascading Consequences Beyond the Event
Triggered Collapse, Part 5: Gaps in National Disaster Planning Scenarios
Triggered Collapse, Part 6: A Nationwide Call to Action
Drew Miller, Ph.D., a former intelligence officer, Pentagon Senior Executive Service official, and retired Air Force Reserve Colonel, business executive, management consultant. He was an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, receiving an academic scholarship to Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in public policy. He has published articles on the bioengineered pandemic threat and presented at national conferences on disaster preparedness. He served as a part-time elected official, county commissioner, and University of Nebraska Regent for 16 years, and continues to serve in the Civil Air Patrol.