In June of 2018, I retired from 22 years of active duty military service with the U.S. Coast Guard. My last assignment was a four-year position with a four-person disaster response unit that kept me on the road or in the air for 200 days of the year as I traveled between hurricanes, oil and chemical spills, shipwrecks, biological threats, vessel collisions, training exercises, and my tiny apartment in Norfolk, VA, where, like Chuck Norris, I did not sleep. I merely waited for the phone to ring.
I crisscrossed the state of Louisiana for six weeks during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico while bouncing between field assignments. I was awake for nearly 48 hours in Galveston, TX, working the 2014 Ebola cruise ship incident. I spent a week in 2015 working out of an idling motorhome in freezing Mount Carbon, W.Va., after a 19-car section of a freight train carrying Bakken crude oil exploded. In 2017, I was in Houston, TX, for Hurricane Harvey, where my team helped to save the lives of thousands of people by coordinating helicopter rescues of people stranded on rooftops. I spent another month in San Juan, PR, during Hurricane Maria, living and working in a leaking, boarded-up hotel and helping to devise a plan to kickstart the island’s ruined economy. I was qualified to don a Level A “moon suit” complete with oxygen tanks so that I could enter a hazardous area, document the danger, and give those in charge of the operation a clear picture of what they were dealing with. I’ve responded to communities in crisis from Dutch Harbor, AK, to San Juan, PR, and hundreds of points in between. So yeah, I can tell you a few things about disasters.
I hung up my gas mask and traded in my Delta SkyMiles for a job writing news and feature articles for The Seattle Collegian last October. So, here I am, working toward a degree at Seattle Central College; just another student living in the epicenter of a major outbreak of COVID 19. All I want to do is make it through this, graduate, pack up, and get back to the relative safety and security of my East Coast friends.
When SCC first announced that classes were shifting online, I took stock of my supplies. I checked my medical kit, ordered an assortment of canned goods and bulk items from Amazon, and a few things from Instacart. I repacked my go-bag, gassed up my car, got familiar with Zoom, and then I carried on with my class assignments. Once upon a time I’d have been sequestered away in a Joint Information Center somewhere – a hotel room, a military base, a rented trailer, wherever – working long hours, and doing everything I could to make sure that the public was getting the verified information they needed to make informed decisions that benefitted their own health and safety and that of their loved ones. Now, I’m self-quarantined like almost everyone else. I’ve been home alone for nearly two weeks. I still get up at 6:30 a.m., make my bed, shower, and prepare for the day as if I were going to class, except now I come downstairs, make a press of strong coffee and open my laptop. I play D&D online with my friends. I read a lot of books. I do the dishes. I try to beat my sit-up score. And I wash my hands about once an hour, whether I’m about to handle food or not. Because this is my job now.
The thing about hurricanes is that they’re largely predictable. They have their own season, which lasts from late Spring to late Autumn along the East Coast. You see them coming on the Weather Channel, spiraling closer to shore and growing in strength. You typically have time to make the decision of whether or not to evacuate (or, maybe you find yourself in a challenged economic position where you simply can’t leave.) Hurricanes have a rescue phase of about 48 hours, followed by the recovery phase as the waters recede and homeowners and renters return to assess damage to their property and possessions. What I’m getting at here is that those problems are fixed and finite. They begin at a certain point in time, and they end at a predictable point. But here in Seattle, in March of 2020, the crisis we face is different.
You can physically experience a hurricane, and you can see (and even smell) an oil spill, but you can only see the effects of this virus; photographs of people in hospital beds grateful to be alive, empty shelves in empty grocery stores, and boarded up businesses. When this is over (and I say when, not if), and it turns out that we beat the curve, that we made a difference and kept the fatalities low, there will be accusations that we over-reacted; that one side of a political party perpetrated a terrifying hoax that needlessly threatened an entire nation. Heaven forbid that a global virus would threaten their personal freedom to go for drinks on a Friday night, or take the vacation they’d been looking forward to. I truly hope that those in denial of what’s happening will not be counted among the lost, because a virus doesn’t recognize boundaries or political ideologies any more than a spill or a storm would. We are in quarantine together to beat the curve and hopefully escape what has already happened in places around the globe. Because this is our job now.
When I wasn’t responding to disasters, I was instructing federal and state first responders, fire chiefs, city council members, and oil industry executives in the science of Crisis, Emergency, and Risk Communications. I was teaching these people to communicate effectively during a crisis, to understand the critical importance of becoming the first and best source of reliable information in a disaster, and to understand the warning signs of actually being in a crisis. I did so with the old adage about a frog in a slow-boiling pot; the moral of the story being that sometimes one only becomes aware of danger when it’s too late to act. Make no mistake, this pot is boiling.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the COVID 19 situation here in Seattle. In fact, I’ve thought of little else. For days now, I’ve been on phone calls, Zoom events, and texts with my professional peers and we all agree: this event is going to change the world and influence an entire generation. Think of the enormous amounts of data being shoved around right now; the spikes in birth rates and divorces, the shifts in virus-conscious business models (drive-in movie theaters, anyone?), and the upheaval of cultural and societal norms. Think of those in the food service industry sent home without pay and no idea when they’ll be able to work again. Think of the medical professionals putting their lives on the line or sequestering themselves away from their children or loved ones in order to keep them safe.
In just a few more days, I get to go outside again, but I want to be absolutely certain that I don’t have the virus before I do so because I damn sure don’t want to inadvertently infect someone who may be immuno-compromised. Even then, my outings will consist of a daily lap around the block for fresh air and exercise. I’m keeping my head down, staying calm, following verified sources on Twitter, reaching out to my friends online, and pressing ahead with my life as best I can. Because this is my job now.
There is no tomorrow. There is only this moment. This is not a drill; the pot is boiling, whether the frog accepts the fact or not. This isn’t the West Coast passively observing East Coast hurricanes, or the East Coast making fun of West Coast fires, or the U.S. blithely ignoring yet another violent terror attack unfolding somewhere else in the world. This is different. It’s here and now. It’s next door, and the next block over, and in your neighborhood. You can’t click this away. This is history.
So, please be kind to yourselves, look out for your neighbors, look for ways to help, don’t hoard supplies, ignore rumors in favor of the facts — and please, wash your hands. Because this is your job now. We’re all in this together. We’ve got this. We have to. Because if we don’t get this right, we’re going to be history.