Dual disaster planning, communication and reason for hope: a discussion with professor Sam Montano

By Tiegan Hobbs, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Seismic Risk Scientist, Temblor (@THobbsGeo)

Sam Montano, professor of emergency management and disaster science, talks about COVID19 and what recovery might look like.

Citation: Hobbs, T.E. (2020), Dual disaster planning, communication and reason for hope: a discussion with professor Sam Montano, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.086

Since seeing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Sam Montano, Ph.D., has made it her life’s work to better understand how emergencies are handled, and how disasters affect communities. She’s a world-renowned expert in emergency management for recovery, disaster volunteerism and communicating disaster information to the public. In between working on her upcoming book, “Disasterology”, and teaching as a Professor of Emergency Management & Disaster Science at University of Nebraska Omaha, Montano took the time to talk about how emergency management is tackling COVID19, how the burden will be shouldered by our communities, and what recovery might look like.

Tiegan Hobbs (TH): Pandemics come without the same data emergency managers might usually have. For a wildfire, you know where was burned and roughly how badly. For an earthquake, you at least know the epicenter and magnitude. What’s it like for emergency managers to work when they are “flying blind?

Sam Montano (SM): It’s really difficult, because our decisions are very often only as good as the data we have. In one sense, emergency managers are used to operating without having all the information they would ideally have — say, if communication lines are down during a hurricane — but it certainly makes the response more difficult. Emergency managers around the world are all saying similar things. They’re preparing for what they think is going to happen, but they don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like in their communities. Especially in the absence of widespread testing in the U.S., there’s a point where you can only do so much.

TH: We know that people with comorbidities and older people are at greater risk, medically. Can you speak to some of the non-medical categories of people who are at risk that we’re not hearing as much about?

SM: In the past couple of weeks, there have started to be more news stories written about the disproportionate impacts of COVID19 on low-income communities of color. These articles that I’ve seen have primarily focused on New York City and New Orleans: two of our hotspots in the U.S. They’re both places where we’ve seen folks who work “essential” jobs not having the privilege of being able to physically distance and stay home. So we’re starting to see that the rates of COVID and the impacts of COVID in those communities are going to be higher than in more affluent communities.

Any community where people are still having to leave their houses to go to work, people who can’t afford to stay home, people who don’t have the money to pay to have groceries delivered … all of those factors are going to play into who actually contracts COVID.

In terms of the [comorbidity] component, this illness collides with communities that have higher rates of chronic illness, so we can expect to see that lower-income communities will likely have a much higher death toll.

Disinfection of New York City Subway cars against coronavirus. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0.

TH: Are there things that we can still do to improve this outcome?

SM: Yeah! Many people are already doing it, but I would encourage folks to pay attention to their own community. There are many mutual aid groups that have formed or repurposed around the country, that are helping with grocery shopping for elderly folks or babysitting their neighbor’s kids so they can still go to work. It’s through these grassroots, one-on-one helping actions that stuff actually happens during disasters.

You should be calling in to check in on your neighbors to see if they’re ok. In emergency management we think of a “whole of community” response, which includes government, businesses and nonprofits — but it also includes individuals. If you are in a position to donate, do so! A lot of food banks are struggling right now. Any local nonprofits are probably struggling right now, so if you can throw them any cash, that would be a helpful thing as well.

TH: What happens if a natural hazard strikes while COVID19 is still spreading?

SM: There are not a lot of easy answers. Any major disaster that happens during a pandemic isn’t going to go well. Almost everything we do in terms of how we respond to and recover from a major disaster requires us to be close to one another: evacuation, search and rescue, sheltering displaced persons, rebuilding.

That said, there are trends that we can look toward that can make us more hopeful. The convergence of spontaneous volunteers is now online. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, folks from all over the world were coming together to help map earthquake damage. After Hurricane Harvey [hit Houston in 2017], there was a call system to coordinate rescue all done virtually. The big takeaway here is that we just need to be creative. It’s going to look different than we’re used to. And people will show up: There was a tornado in Nashville in early March, right as COVID started to explode in the U.S., but thousands of volunteers still showed up to help.

[On the government side,] I have talked to a lot of emergency managers in this country who are in the midst of rewriting their plans for hurricane season, or for how to deal with sheltering for tornadoes. [The idea of simultaneous disasters is] on their radar, for sure. The agencies that have resources to dedicate to reworking those plans are doing that.

Flooding in Port Arthur, Texas on August 31, 2017. Image Credit: Public Domain.

TH: How could we better prepare for compounding disasters?

SM: It’s not that people didn’t plan for dual disasters, it’s that we have systematically under-invested in our emergency management systems across the country. Most communities have a part-time emergency manager. They work maybe 15-20 hours a week on emergency-related stuff, and you cannot possibly expect that part-time emergency manager in a rural community in the Midwest to be able to create these plans to address not only a pandemic but also think through adjusting all their other plans for another disaster.

It gets back to the core philosophy of emergency management, where we take an all-hazards approach to planning. We focus on creating systems that are versatile, resilient and flexible no matter what the hazard is. What makes a response to a hurricane or tornado during the pandemic more challenging is primarily tied to the issue of physically needing to be apart from one another, but the system that we use to organize a response — like the National Incident Management System — should be the same as for a hurricane with no pandemic. Looking forward, it’s important for us to still focus on those core systems, but maybe we need to talk about how to make them more flexible.

TH: You’ve said that the data clearly support sharing uncensored information directly with the public. Some have claimed this is a scare tactic. How has that played out here so far?

SM: The public deserves to know what is happening around us. Withholding information from the public leads to people not being able to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. I think it stems from a persistent belief that we need “command and control” during the response to a disaster, but research suggests that the public has to be active participants in a response because they’re making decisions that are going to impact that overall response. So instead of taking a top-down approach where officials are trying to disguise or withhold information from the public, a more bottom-up approach relies on those in positions of authority to provide information to the public so that they can be participants.

There needs to be clarity from anyone in a position of authority: the president, the health institutions, the media, your local mayor. Uncertainty leaves space for poor decisions, and the research supports that it is better to be honest with public. None of us are happy with the news we’re hearing, but it empowers us to make the right choices for ourselves and our families.

TH: There’s an idea that people turn into their worst selves during a crisis — looting, hoarding, the negative sides of society. Is this borne out by data?

SM: Going back to the 1950s, disaster sociologists did a bunch of studies following disasters in the U.S. and they found that people were most likely to exhibit prosocial behavior during and following disasters, rather than antisocial. There’s a myth that people are running around panicking, looting, increases in violence, and that the whole situation is chaotic. In fact, research finds that people come together. They look around at the resources they have and seeing how they can improvise or use those resources to help. That’s where we see this convergence of people coming in to help, as well as “emergence” where the survivors of the disaster are the real first responders to the disaster. They begin search and rescue immediately after an earthquake. They’re not waiting for official urban search and rescue teams to come in. It doesn’t mean it’s a utopia, but it’s a time where people are coming together to help one another.

TH: The Imperial College study projected that we’ll need to keep social distancing in place in some form until there’s a vaccine widely available. Now there’s interest in loosening restrictions earlier, and clamping back down when the numbers spike. Is there any precedent for this pulse-and-suppression strategy?

SM: No, I can’t think of any precedent. The idea that we are going to minimize shelter-in-place orders and then put them back in place, and maybe do this multiple times, is logistically very complicated. It would require extensive and very clear communication from people in positions of authority that the public trusts. Given how the response has unfolded thus far I find it difficult to believe that we would be successful in navigating such a sophisticated order to the public.

Modeling suggests that the virus can be slowed below the capacity of the healthcare system so long as aggressive social distancing measures remain in place. A surge is expected if restrictions are loosened prior to development of a vaccine. Image Credit: Modified from Ferguson et al., 2020.

TH: Given the wealth of data that we will collect during this crisis, do you think disaster management will change?

SM: Obviously I hope that it does, but I am a bit more of a pessimist about it. We see differential impacts among gender, race, class lines, and their intersections, in just about every disaster. This is extremely well known among the disaster research community. Still, people think that disaster is this great equalizer and of course that’s not true. All of those social inequalities that exist pre-disaster are exposed and made more prominent during and after a disaster. So perhaps this will make the public more aware of these disparities. That would be the optimistic take here.

That being said, this is exactly why we need to view emergency management through a social justice lens, because that’s how we can get at not just the systematic inequalities in our communities, but we can also assess the systematic inequalities within our approach to emergency management.

TH: Do you think individual people will change their response in the future? With the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, communities where people had memories of a fatal tsunami had no fatalities in the 2011 event. Do you expect a similar effect from this?

SM: Yeah. Preparedness research is messy, but there is definitely some indication that previous disaster experience influences preparing for future disasters. I am particularly curious because FEMA has been talking a lot about creating a culture of preparedness in the United States. This shared experience across the country of being in the midst of this crisis has people realizing that they were not really prepared to go through this. Maybe there will be a lingering culture of preparedness that comes about because of it. Again, though, this is very closely tied to resources. It’s much easier for a millionaire to stockpile a month of food in their basement than it is for somebody who’s living paycheck to paycheck. Hopefully it will help people have preparedness on their mind moving forward.

Further Reading:

Anderson, R. M., Heesterbeek, H., Klinkenberg, D., & Hollingsworth, T. D. (2020). How will country-based mitigation measures influence the course of the COVID-19 epidemic?. The Lancet, 395(10228), 931-934.

Ferguson, N., Laydon, D., Nedjati Gilani, G., Imai, N., Ainslie, K., Baguelin, M., … & Dighe, A. (2020). Report 9: Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand.

Montano, S., & Savitt, A. (2016). Rethinking our approach to gender and disasters: Needs, responsibilities, and solutions. Journal of emergency management (Weston, Mass.), 14(3), 189-199.

Montano, S. (2019). Disaster volunteerism as a contributor to resilience. The Routledge Handbook of Urban Resilience.