by Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

The 1950’s health crisis was a crippling and killer disease, polio, that parents feared every time their children complained of headaches, tiredness, stomach pain, etc. Once developed, polio vaccines were quickly embraced, administered in schools; that health crisis was abated.  We depended on and trusted medical science to free us from polio.

In that same era, Cold War science fiction movie scriptwriters – largely to avoid “Red Scare” condemnation promoted by conspiracy theorists of that day – created “otherworldly” threats, requiring that the nations of the world unite to “save the planet”  – rather than directly warn about the lunacy of “Mutual Assured Destruction”   (MAD). Thus, the dramatic lesson, as in the real-life polio scourge: there are hazards nations and humanity must meet together.

During the Washington State Military Department’s counterterrorism partnership with the Kingdom of Thailand,   I learned a large part of Thailand’s trade came through the Port of Tacoma, triggering this thought: what if that port was inoperable for an extended period? My counterpart at the State of Alaska advised subsequently that an earthquake disabling the Seattle region’s major ports for just a week could produce severe food and supplies shortages in Alaska. To avert starvation for some would be quite daunting, with massive airlifts and trucking caravans the only options.

This reality spurred my efforts to operationalize the Pacific Northwest Emergency Management Agreement (PNEMA) to facilitate sharing of expertise and resources throughout FEMA’s Region 10 states (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska), British Columbia, and the Yukon. PNEMA was tested in the 2012  Evergreen Exercise and since has been employed in real-time events. As a result, we recognized our regional interdependencies and took appropriate measures together.

Another example: the widespread economic impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico illuminated how a single disaster in one region could severely damage business and commerce throughout the nation. Time and again, such disasters remind us of our dependence on each other.

There are discouraging indicators in the United States that we have lost that sense of an interdependent community. The COVID crisis’s extended impact has become a human-caused threat to national security, made worse by false conspiracy theories fed to the ill-informed among us. In the sci-fi movies, the comeuppance for such negligence was swift and strangely satisfying (“giant ants” mocked the security guard just before being swallowed by one!); in real life, that comeuppance not only is tragic for deniers and their families, but we are at risk of being pulled down with them, by them.

Achieving our Independence from COVID seems worth a shot, or two,  even a booster. Or, we must increasingly focus emergency management and other public safety resources on protecting health care workers, school officials, and sincere public officials as they struggle to save us from ourselves. Come to think of it, that was the real message of those sci-fi movies, too.