The persistence of ineffective disaster planning

The persistence of ineffective disaster planning
© Getty Images

After five months of “managing” the COVID-19 pandemic, what have we learned? For readers of The Wall Street Journal’s “A Deadly Coronavirus Was Inevitable. Why Was No One Ready?,” for viewers of the recent ABC News Special “American Catastrophe,” or for readers of the recent Johns Hopkins report, “Resetting Our Response,” the answer, sadly, is: nothing. Nothing, that is, that we shouldn’t have known from before day one, nothing that we shouldn’t have anticipated for years before the pandemic exploded. 

The elements of this catastrophe described at length in those reports — response plans left unexecuted, relegation of the issue to a lesser national security priority, early warnings from experts that were ignored, and muddled messaging that amplified confusion and frustrated a strategic approach — were both foreseeable and foreseen. 

These fatal defects are not limited, however, to the planning for pandemics discussed in those recent reports; they are intrinsic to the way governments have planned for and responded to a range of emergencies and disasters. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The COVID-19 pandemic may seem to have little in common, for example, with the 9/11 terrorist attacks or with Hurricane Katrina. But the responses to these three very different disasters share this fundamental feature: The planning protocols in place prior to the events were abandoned immediately, and for a similar reason. Put simply, the plans the government developed to respond to the events bore little resemblance, in each case, to the way the events actually would be experienced, and thus became immediately irrelevant.   

The planning in place for air defense prior to 9/11 and hurricane response prior to Katrina each presupposed that there would be time to seek authorization for decisive action up the chain of command and to relay those instructions back down to the first responders. When, on 9/11, planes were hijacked and disappeared from radar, however, the military commanders departed immediately from protocol and ordered fighter jets to scramble and, as the commanding general put it, “seek the authorities later.” They never returned to those protocols during the attacks. 

Unlike 9/11, Hurricane Katrina was not a surprise. A category 3 hurricane hitting New Orleans had been anticipated and emergency plans had been exercised repeatedly by state and federal officials in the years leading to Katrina. But, again, the planning called for critical decision making to occur in the upper echelons of government — by the mayor, the governor, the secretary of Homeland Security, and ultimately the president. As on 9/11, those layers of government proved almost immediately irrelevant to the actual response, unable to communicate at critical times to the responders who were forced to make command decisions with little guidance. 

The Bush and Obama administrations had encountered potential pandemics and taken their grave potential seriously. They developed playbooks and extensive plans to anticipate and respond. By all accounts, however, the Trump administration made almost no effort to implement the plans.  Why? No clear answer is available.   

But my experience implementing and studying emergency planning leads me to doubt it would have mattered, for two reasons. First, all of the available planning documents gloss over — with pledges to work with “political leadership at all levels of government” to coordinate efforts — the fundamental disconnect that has emerged in the COVID-19 pandemic response: The disease does not respect the political boundaries — national, state and local — that have shaped our response to it.   

ADVERTISEMENT

Absent some anticipation that response to a pandemic would require a more centralized effort, and the execution of memoranda of understanding to that effect, the world’s nations and, within the U.S., the states have been left to go their separate ways, and within the states themselves smaller units of government have been resisting even statewide efforts. The result — our current disordered state — would not have been prevented by the existing plans. 

Second, the federal planning documents call for extensive investment in the pre-pandemic period in personal protective equipment, emergency medical supplies, and laboratory testing capacity and, again, for coordination of those efforts — almost as though coordination, the hardest part of any government effort, would be self-executing. None of that happened.   

There also seems to have been scant attention paid to the imperative for candid, consistent messaging. Indeed, just as in the months preceding 9/11 the Bush administration lowered the priority of the terrorist threat by diminishing the profile of Richard Clarke, who had coordinated federal counterterror efforts, so had the Trump administration streamlined the National Safety Council staff by eliminating the pandemic crisis coordinator.   

The presence of such a point person at the federal level might have fostered development of a clear and consistent message to the public, the lack of which has been the administration’s greatest failure. Such clarity and consistency may be impossible with this president, who has both advocated the use of masks and encouraged those who oppose it; who has undercut the advice of his own medical experts and minimized the scope of the crisis; and who continues to pressure for reopening before the rate of infection and hospitalization has stabilized.   

All of this has left experts increasingly desperate, if not despairing, because although the president’s authority over the states was left limited and unchanged in the pandemic planning, effective use of the bully pulpit could have driven a national strategy. Instead, the administration’s muddled messaging has violated what John Barry, author of the definitive history of the 1918 influenza pandemic, recently called “the most important lesson of 1918, one that all the working groups on pandemic planning agreed upon: Tell the truth.”                            

That lesson also applies more broadly to government responses to emergencies. In its responses to 9/11 and Katrina, the Bush administration was less than candid with the public about what had transpired. Its dissembling about what actually occurred on 9/11 raised more questions than it answered, led directly to the formation of the 9/11 Commission, and was revealed in the commission’s investigation to have been in important respects untrue. A similar attempt to downplay the bureaucratic disconnects in the response to Katrina was met with outrage and open disbelief.   

Not surprisingly, the patent flaws in the response to the coronavirus pandemic have led many experts, such as the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, to demand a “reset.”  The course we have traveled, if unaltered, could cost many American lives. That reset should include an insistence that the government plan for and manage crises not according to the hierarchies and boundaries on an org chart, but according to how by their nature they will be experienced.  

It’s a cliché that those who don’t study the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.  The tragedy of our response to the pandemic to date is the realization that the mistakes of the past can be studied ad nauseum, but without realistic planning and clear, consistent leadership it just may not matter.

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.