4 Things To Help Navigate The Biggest US Disruption In A Century

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

I feel like the US is slowly catching up to what I've known for years.

I knew we were not ready for a catastrophe - especially more than one at a time.

I knew we were not ready for a pandemic.

I've looked into it. I'm not the only one who has, but I did some very, very serious looking. In depth. For YEARS.

(For more, see at least these collected works: 1) Why, (2) The Great Transformation (the time that's now; in the COVID-19 pandemic), 3) knowing a US catastrophe would be bad (creating the space; coronavirus version), and 4) There Is No National Coordination System - There Are 12.)

Finding the answer to whether we were prepared for catastrophe was not where I started. I started when I extricated myself from my perfectly lovely (and awesome) wildland fire career, and hauled my life and myself to Washington DC. The idea was to work on a system to help with disasters and catastrophes like 9/11. A lot of it sucked. I followed leads and jobs into the core of Homeland Security and into the heart of incident management. I found my way to the insides of all of the policy. I found my way to the insides of highly classified secret squirrel out in the middle of nowhere deep dark contingency planning. I've worked everything from huge wildfires to volcanic eruptions to an animal disease epidemic to an oil spill and to more hurricanes that I'll remember the names of.

I've worked with teams that identified vulnerabilities and shortfalls that have scared the living daylights out of government officials.

I've tried to get more government officials to pay attention to those things. I have watched government leaders and officials pretend like they never heard any of that, and totally and completely fail to address any of it.

I fought like holy hell to get some of that stuff addressed anyway. I worked with other people who fought like hell, too. We had some success in a few areas, and overall we're definitely better than before 9/11. Marginally.

But we're nowhere near where we could have been. I fought the fight because my role in the disaster business since I got into fire management - and then into policy - was always to back the people out on the front lines.


No one has the money or the testicular fortitude to take on the really, really, tough, wicked problems when they seem imaginary and unlikely. When you're in a nice stable day-to-day life, and everything seems okay.

Nobody has the patience to step back and look at things from a systems perspective. Nobody has the patience to deal with the overwhelm of the unimaginable. So they do a little bit here and there, and then they go off to a different job, and the deep, wicked problems never get solved.

So now we're in a pandemic.

It's the worst of the worst.

Except for all of the additional things that could go wrong while we're in the middle of it. Like, you know, other disasters (which will happen). Territory disputes. Power moves. World war. Increased violence between countries or people over limited resources. Massive economic collapse. A depression. You know. Stuff like that.

So now what do we do?

It's a good question. If there was ever a question I've been working on getting the answer for, it's that one. Because I knew we would get to this kind of a moment. Because I knew we weren't ready. So what do we do now?

Everyone wants a silver bullet. There isn't one.

When things go to crap, and they are, and they will continue to... it comes down to four things. Four things are what we are going to need to get through this.

Connection. Community. Problem-solving. Resilience.

Do those things.

Don't try to lone-wolf this. Won't work. We need people. We're tribal beings.

Now, we need people at a safe distance who have all washed their hands and don't cough on you and stuff, but that doesn't change the fact that we still need people. We need to look after people, and we need them to look after us. We need to take care of each other. We need to find new ways to do that. All of the ways.

We need people to run the systems, too. If EVERYONE is hiding out, it won't be long until the cascading effects and interdependencies catch us... and next thing you know there's no infrastructure up and running. If there's one thing we've learned from disasters and from your best apocalypse movies, it's that infrastructure failures cause Big Trouble.

And so on. I could write a thesis. A dissertation. Several books.

But here we are. We're in the middle of this. I would love to be able to champion some things that could help at scale. We'll see if I can figure out a way to get that done. Lots of people are working lots of angles. We're problem solvers - people. That's how we made it this far, after all.

For now, at a practical level where we live every day, it's connection, community, problem solving, and resilience.

Soon, we're going to be running into a lot more suffering, fear, and death.

I will say this now. People freak the hell out in disasters. There are trauma responses, where people do a flight, fright, or freeze response. There's irrationality and panic. There will be mean people and angry people and all kinds of people who don't listen. There will be guns. There will probably be violence. The tension is rising.

There's also going to be connection, community, problem solving, and resilience.

There's going to be some of the best of humanity. Absolutely some of the best.

If you're freaking out, try to find a way to step back for a few minutes. Take a five-minute break. Breathe. See some beauty somewhere. Do a gratitude list. Love the hell out of your people.

Everything is going to be different on the other side. Who we are will be different. Who we lose in the middle will matter. Who we are in the middle will matter. Tough stuff is coming, and we don't necessarily know for who. Could be any one of us.

We'll be better ready to face it when we think through some scenarios ahead of time. We know that from research. That's one thing you can do now - work through some of what you and your people could do in different situations. Say the things you need to say. Do the things you need to do.

It's easy to feel powerless. In a lot of ways we are. In a lot of ways we're not, though. We can love our people now. We can get a little bit ready for what's coming. We can do some problem-solving. We may be able to do a lot of problem-solving. We can build some resilience. We can take care of each other.

That's how we get it done.

We're in a reckoning. Not a single one of them is ever easy.

So who will we be in the middle?

Be safe.

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