What if? What if a natural disaster strikes amid a pandemic?

By John C. Mutter, Ph.D., Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences and Professor of International & Public Affairs, Columbia University
 

Given the timescales of the Earth’s natural spasms, and the course of the coronavirus pandemic, it will only be by luck that we will avoid an intersection. Somewhere an earthquake or a major storm will happen in a place where the nemesis is out of control. Then what?
 

Citation: Mutter, J.C., (2020), What if? What if a natural disaster strikes amid a pandemic? http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.082
 

New York City, April 1: We’re now more than a week into our shelter-in-place/stay home orders, courtesy of the coronavirus. The thought occurred to me, and I know to others as well, that things could get a lot worse, especially if a natural disaster were to strike in the middle of the current crisis. I hate to sound like an alarmist, which as a rule I am not, but we need to wonder about the intersection of timescales.
 

Earthquakes, storms, floods and more

Natural disasters, depending on their type, occur on quite different timescales. Earthquakes, the big ones that really matter, have recurrence times that may be many hundreds of years. The next Tohoku earthquake may not happen for another thousand years or more. Smaller earthquakes, even big “smaller” ones of magnitude 7, say, occur more frequently.

Just after the Croatian government issued stay at home orders for the whole country due to the pandemic, a magnitude-5.5 quake shook the country, damaging Zagreb among other cities. Reports suggest that people ran outside their homes, trying to observe social distancing rules, but when you’re panicking from one disaster, it’s hard to remember rules for another disaster. A magnitude-5.7 quake struck Utah this month as well, scaring residents of Salt Lake City but thankfully not causing tremendous damages. A magnitude-6.5 struck a remote area of Idaho yesterday, causing no damage. These sizes of earthquakes are common. And really small earthquakes, like magnitude 1 and 2, happen all the time, we just don’t notice them. The reality is, that even though scientists do know average recurrence intervals, there is absolutely no telling exactly when and where an earthquake might strike.

Very large cyclones occur more frequently. Somewhere in the world, a top magnitude cyclone brings calamity at least once a year. In the Atlantic basin, we are not in hurricane season, but nor’easters—extratropical cyclones that are winter phenomena, so-named for their predominant wind direction—are relatively common this time of year. They can bring biblical amounts of rain and snow. The March 1888 storm covered New York City with up to 1.4 meters (55 inches) of snow and brought the city to a halt. As nor’easter season winds down, hurricane season will start to ramp up—probably before the coronavirus pandemic dies down, and almost certainly before a vaccine is produced.

 

The great blizzard of March 1888 that buried New York City and much of New England in more than a meter of snow and killed more than 400 people was a nor'easter. Such storms are relatively common in springtime. What would happen if such a storm struck New York before the COVID-19 pandemic was over? Credit: public domain
The great blizzard of March 1888 that buried New York City and much of New England in more than a meter of snow and killed more than 400 people was a nor’easter. Such storms are relatively common in springtime. What would happen if such a storm struck New York before the COVID-19 pandemic was over? Credit: public domain

 

We’re also entering prime tornado season for the middle and southern parts of the U.S. We’ve already seen several deadly tornado outbreaks, including in places where COVID-19 has taken a toll. One doctor who is treating COVID-19 patients lost his home to a tornado. It’s also flood season for much of the Midwest and landslide season for much of the West. Fire season too is not far away.

Natural hazards strike on their own timescales without regard for whatever else humanity is dealing with.

 

The coronavirus timescale

Now think about a different timescale—that over which the novel coronavirus will be defeated. Scientists know far less about that timescale than we do about natural hazards. From previous experience with SARS, a virus in the same family as the new coronavirus, scientists think it is likely to be months more. Estimates by my colleagues at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health suggest it might be summer of 2021 before a vaccine will be generally available.

 

What if?

So, seismologists, meteorologists and volcanologists around the world are holding their collective breaths. What, they wonder, would it have been like if the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009 in central Italy had occurred during a pandemic. It is just plain luck that it did not. The L’Aquila quake killed more than 300 people, even with hospitals fully available. What if another occurs now, before the pandemic is over in that country? Or what if one strikes Iran or China or Los Angeles in the middle of the pandemic? What if a storm like the 1888 nor’easter came to New York in the next few weeks before the pandemic was quelled? That’s entirely plausible. What if another Hurricane Katrina pummels New Orleans, Harvey hits Houston, Maria swamps Puerto Rico, Irma and Michael strike Florida? The list goes on and on. Throughout the world, questions of this sort can be asked over and over. Questions are many; answers are few.

You can’t evacuate New York City, or any other large city, and have everyone maintain their social distance, nor can first responders keep their distance from people they are attempting to rescue. You can’t shelter in the New Orleans Superdome and keep your social distance. These thoughts go on and on.

 

Hurricane Katrina survivors shelter at the Houston Astrodome after being evacuated from New Orleans in 2005. Disasters like Katrina reveal the differences between people with means and those without, and affect the classes differently. Pandemics like the coronavirus also affect the classes differently and disproportionately. Credit: Andrea Booher/FEMA
Hurricane Katrina survivors shelter at the Houston Astrodome after being evacuated from New Orleans in 2005. Disasters like Katrina reveal the differences between people with means and those without, and affect the classes differently. Pandemics like the coronavirus also affect the classes differently and disproportionately. Credit: Andrea Booher/FEMAFEMA photo/Andrea Booher

 

Given the timescales of the Earth’s natural spasms, and the course of the pandemic, it will only be by luck that we will avoid an intersection. Somewhere an earthquake or a major storm will happen in a place where the nemesis is out of control. Then what?

 

The poor get poorer

Then disaster will play out as disasters always do, but in an amplified way. Many poor people don’t own cars, so evacuating an oncoming storm (or pandemic) means crowding into a bus with 40 or more others, some infected, some not, who knows. Or it means just staying where you are in the hopes that the approaching disaster will not be as bad as predicted. Wear a mask on the bus if you have managed to acquire one. Or hope that they will be handed out to you by someone. I still haven’t found a mask yet, and I live in New York City, where you can usually buy anything. I wear a silk bandanna. Nor can I find any hand sanitizer.

COVID-19 transmits far more readily than the flu so it is inevitable that, at the very least, we should expect a spike in cases at a time when cases will be hard to treat because the emergency systems will be stretched just dealing with the usual trauma of a “regular” disaster. The privileged will pack their personal vehicles with essentials and drive away with a fine supply of food, and maybe even face masks and hand sanitizer. Some will drive not to a shelter but to a resort where the population density is quite small anyway, so the risk of infection is much less. Others will shelter in comfortable homes, with computers, high-speed internet and plenty of food. In effect, for this pandemic, just like for hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters, the poor will experience enhanced risk; the wealthy may experience inconvenience, but diminished risk.

 

The New York National Guard is setting up hospital "rooms" in the Javits Center to ease the hospital bed shortage in the city. Credit: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Sean Madden
The New York National Guard is setting up hospital “rooms” in the Javits Center to ease the hospital bed shortage in the city. Credit: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Sean Madden

 

I am a professor at Columbia University. The only impact on my income is that we are to expect no raises this year. I can work from home on my iPad. All of Columbia’s teaching is now virtual. No instructors will be laid off. I have barely been out of my apartment for a couple of weeks. There are plenty of white-collar jobs that have been furloughed without pay as well—dentists and hygienists, for example; doctors who aren’t trained to treat COVID-19 cases but cannot see their other patients because of shelter-in-place rules; real estate agents—but in general, these people have safety nets.

Low-income workers will take the hardest immediate and long-term financial hit. They largely have jobs that cannot be done virtually, so they are far more likely to be laid off than wealthier people and often have little to no safety net. A sanitation worker cannot perform his duties virtually, and we surely want them to keep doing their jobs. Many restaurants are keeping their delivery service alive so that the restaurant can survive, and that keeps the kitchen staff and delivery people at least marginally employed, but not the waiters. Bus drivers, daycare workers and store clerks have lost their incomes, and for who knows how long. But even if poorer people had jobs that could be done from home, many don’t own computers or have high-speed internet.

The effect of lost weeks of schooling is much greater for poor students, who typically struggle with under-resourced home lives and parents who cannot homeschool for myriad reasons—time being the largest, but also language skills and technology. The technical term from Development Economics is “human capital development”: Poor kids will be standing still in this time away from school—however long it lasts. Wealthier people will hire tutors.

 

Without equal access to technology, poorer children often lose out on weeks of schooling during a disaster. Credit: AngryJulieMonday (CC BY 2.0)
Without equal access to technology, poorer children often lose out on weeks of schooling during a disaster. Credit: AngryJulieMonday (CC BY 2.0)

 

In the aftermath of natural disasters like earthquakes, there is a similar sorting. Those living in the crowded cities of blue UN tarps in Port au Prince in 2010 were not the wealthy elite of Haiti. They had left in private jets or chartered planes. Cholera was, and often is, feared in a post-disaster setting in a poor country, although in reality it seldom happens. But there has not been much thought given to how to manage refugee camps in a time of pandemic. How can refugees packed into tents practice social distancing?

If the predictions of wise, well-informed people are correct, hurricane season will arrive before the virus is beaten. We can’t know if an earthquake or volcanic eruption will happen—they don’t have seasons, but simply thinking about timescales suggests a strong possibility that a serious earthquake could occur before we are free of this curse that keeps us at home, fretting about ourselves and the people we care for.

 

Disasters divide us

It’s the screenplay of a Hollywood movie, but it is real. Disasters don’t bring us together, they separate us.

What could we do? I have never wanted to be overtly political in these commentaries, but as a scientist who studies the effects of disasters on the poor, I can say that universal health care would be a great step forward. Universal salary insurance would be very helpful as well. The people who suffer the most have no safety net.

We could have paid more attention to what was happening in China and not acted like this was a “Chinese” virus so it could never hurt us. We could have paid attention when Italy exploded. We could have not done what all autocratic leaders do and dismissed the severity of the virus because that would suggest the government doesn’t have things under control—autocrats hate that. We could have realized that test kits and respirators would be needed in potentially huge quantities. We could have realized that ER beds would leap in demand.

We could have acknowledged this is a globalized world and not pretended that bad things that happen elsewhere can’t happen to us. We could have been more thoughtful and more humble. Maybe next time we can do better, and maybe we can have some safety nets in place for the most vulnerable, many of whom right now are the ones taking care of us.