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The USA Is Not Prepared for a National-Scale Disaster

In a national-scale disaster, the cavalry will be not be coming.

People sometimes send me books unsolicited. One such book is The Civil Defense Book: Emergency Preparedness for a Rural or Suburban Community. I have not read it. I have not even opened it! It is the Christmas season and ... I'm busy ...

What I did do was read the letter that Michael Mabee sent along with the book. You can read it below, but I find the contents right on the money. I don't know if his book is worth much as a read, but if it follows his reasoning in the letter — it could be useful. After we stopped planning for the nuclear holocaust, once the Soviet Union was dissolved, so too our planning for a national-scale disaster went the way of the dodo bird.

In a more limited scale, it is the type of planning that I've espoused for large regional disasters that don't allow for the free movement of resources into the disaster area. Puerto Rico is a small footprint, but a prime example of how bad, bad can be. 


Dear Mr. Holdeman,

I have followed your blogs on the EMP [electromagnetic pulse] threat with interest and share your concern that we are not doing enough to educate elected officials and our partners about the risks from an EMP. I thought you would be interested in the new edition of my book on the subject.

I have been studying the vulnerabilities of the U.S. critical infrastructures for years and our lack of preparedness for a national-scale disaster. As you know, “civil defense” gradually morphed into “emergency management” over the years and I believe we lost something vital in the process.

Our modern emergency management system depends on outside resources being brought into the “disaster area.” But what if substantially the whole country became the “disaster area”? While our current EM system works for local and regional-scale disasters, there is no plan for a national-scale disaster. Towns and cities across the country assume that somebody is coming to rescue them and most emergency managers are wired to believe that outside resources will be available shortly. But in a national-scale disaster, the cavalry will be not be coming for a very long time. Our communities will be on their own — survival will be a local issue. The United States is not prepared for a national-scale disaster.

But there is much that emergency mangers can do. I believe that we need more resilient communities that have a plan to function on their own for a long period of time in the event of a national-scale disaster. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No. There is much we can do ahead of time to mitigate the loss of life. This is the message I am trying to get out to emergency managers, communities and anyone who will listen.

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.