Coronavirus: Some Lessons from Katrina, but also from Ivan

If the spread of coronavirus turns out to fall short of the worst-case scenarios we’re hearing now — and let’s hope it does — it’s easy to envision such regrets. People are bound to ask whether government overreacted.

by Stephanie Grace, The Times-Picayune, The New Orleans Advocate / March 16, 2020
Passengers disembark from the Carnival Sunshine cruise ship Monday, March 16, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. Passengers said they had their temperature taken before getting on the cruise ship for the four-day cruise to the Bahamas but did not have their temperature taken getting off. According to passengers, cruise officials did ask them if they felt OK when leaving. AP

(TNS) — South Louisiana has collective experience in going through catastrophes. It also has collective experience in not going through them.

Inevitably, the rapidly escalating coronavirus situation has evoked memories of Hurricane Katrina. Some similarities are infuriating, specifically the sluggish response by the Trump administration. Some comparisons are constructive; these include the ideas on how to manage disaster that former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu shared on CNN.com.

"Responses to emergencies require clear command and control; good and consistent communication; strong coordination and collaboration from all levels of government; and cooperation from the public," he wrote.

But there’s also a comparison to be made with Ivan, the massive storm that threatened the New Orleans area just a year before Katrina struck in 2005 — but that veered east before making landfall.

Much of the population heeded official recommendations to evacuate for what turned out to be a shoo-shoo. And a lot of folks were understandably cranky about it afterward. The evacuation experience ranged from inconvenient to unpleasant to downright awful, with traffic backups of as much as 12 hours.

In hindsight, there were those who said it hadn’t been worth going through all that for a false alarm and that they wouldn’t do it again — and indeed, when Katrina threatened the following summer, some didn’t.

If the spread of coronavirus turns out to fall short of the worst-case scenarios we’re hearing now — and let’s all hope that it does — it’s easy to envision such after-the-fact regrets. People are bound to ask whether government overreacted, if it was really necessary to cancel festivals and basketball tournaments, empty college campuses and shutter schools, and take other drastic precautionary actions. Instead of feeling thankful that things worked out OK, some people might be irritated that they were put out in the first place.

Just as with a near-miss hurricane, that would be precisely the wrong lesson to learn.

More importantly and unlike a hurricane scare, a better-than-feared outcome wouldn’t be a matter of luck. It could well be the result of those precautionary measures we’re all being asked to take.

In other words, this time we’re not just sitting here waiting for something to happen. By keeping our social distance, we’re playing an important role in trying to prevent it from happening.

This is the theory behind the “flattening the curve” graphic that’s making the rounds, and it’s a vital one. The idea is that, by minimizing close human contact, people can collectively slow the spread of the virus. This would reduce surges in demand for limited hospital beds and other scarce resources, and give the health care system time to ramp up capacity.

“If more of us do that, we will slow the spread of the disease,” Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, told the news site Vox. “That means my mom and your mom will have a hospital bed if they need it.”

If the approach works, the results won’t be obvious to the naked eye. They won’t be demonstrably linked to the changes we’re implementing, as opposed to just an epidemiological stroke of luck comparable to a hurricane’s last-minute shift. We won’t ever know for sure whether our collective good behavior contributed, or which individual canceled contact prevented infection of a stranger or an elderly loved one. You don’t hear a bell that never rings.

So maybe the best thing to do, when this is all over and if things work out relatively well, is to just assume it did. And to feel empowered rather than helpless.

This is one of those rare situations where staying home, digging into a good book or cooking a nice dinner isn’t just self-indulgent, but also generous. For those who feel the urge to venture out, the same goes for giving a favorite restaurant some business and tipping the servers well. With tourism slowing to a crawl, this is going to be a tough stretch for them.

In truth, things will be tough for a whole lot of people. Friday, Gov. John Bel Edwards took the extraordinary step of ordering K-12 schools closed for a month, which will create immense difficulty for parents. It was just one of the extreme measures he announced late last week.

Extreme, but necessary. We can’t wish away the weather, but we can help determine how this current crisis plays out in ways we may or may not ever understand. We’ve got to try.

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