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Triggered Collapse, Part 5: Gaps in National Disaster Planning Scenarios

Editor Note: This 6-part series was submitted and scheduled at the end of 2019. In light of COVID-19, we are accelerating the publication of the final three parts to ensure DomPrep readers have this critical information to assist in their jurisdictions’ pandemic response plans.

In contrast to experts’ estimates of millions of deaths, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pandemic influenza planning scenario refers to just 87,000 casualties – not much more than a bad seasonal flu. This version of the scenario seen in public forums has planning assumptions on virus lethality, worker absenteeism, and maintenance of law and order that are irresponsibly optimistic. When planning for security, it is better to err on the side of worst-case scenarios. The DHS uses 15 National Planning Scenarios. Scenario 3 is “Biological Disease Outbreak – Pandemic Influenza,” and Scenario 4 is “Biological Attack – Pneumonic Plague.”

None of these scenarios involve a genetically modified organism (GMO) or bioengineered agent used to generate a viral pandemic with truly catastrophic levels of deaths. None of these scenarios deal with large nation-state levels of attack. There is no official, released version of DHS Scenario 3, but references to Scenario 3 usually cite just 87,000 casualties, less than what many scientists and biologists fear would result. The assumptions of the virus not being that bad, worker absenteeism not much problem outside the health care sector, and no problems from lawlessness, lead to all forms of critical infrastructure operating and no cascading effects. However, the 2006 National Influenza Pandemic Implementation Plan noted that “a modern pandemic could lead to the deaths of 200,000 to 2 million people in the United States alone,” compared to the 87,000 fatalities most often cited for Pandemic Influenza Scenario #3.

Realistic vs. Unrealistic Projections

A doctor, pandemic expert, and associate DHS director, writing in New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 estimated that, “even a relatively ‘mild’ pandemic” (relative to the lethality of the 1918-1919 Influenza pandemic) “could kill many millions of people.” Avian flu (H5N1) may be worse than past H1N1 influenza pandemics. The contrasts between the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, seasonal flu, and the anticipated avian flu pandemic cited earlier that experts say could kill a billion people. The realistic Clade X simulation estimated hundreds of millions of fatalities. Yet U.S. National Planning Scenarios uses only tens of thousands of fatalities.

The National Planning Scenarios (NPS), while marked “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY” are readily available on the internet in sanitized, abbreviated form. Detailed versions that were accidentally posted a decade ago are still available on some state websites. The NPS occasionally refer to but ignore the consequences of a collapse in their “secondary hazards/events,” in casualty estimates, or recovery resources and preparations needed.

The official modeling and studies of the Pandemic Influenza scenario show optimistic assumptions, ignoring many politically contentious issues. For example, the 2007 OSHA description highlighted changes in shopping behavior, desired items, and preferred shopping times and methods, but does not address panic buying, looting, and violence that are also likely to occur.

A Council on Foreign Affairs sponsored conference in 2005 considered the impacts of an avian flu outbreak. The fatality estimate used was not thousands, but a pandemic that would kill 130-150 million people, about 2% of the world’s population. Their predictions of impacts:

  • Air service to infected areas will shut down (with unions/employees refusing to fly, even if governments do not prohibit international flights).
  • The pandemic would last 18 to 24 months (not less than a year like the mild H1N1 pandemic).
  • Some political leaders will decide to close borders at national, state, and city levels.
  • Basic services such as food and fuel will be significantly affected.
  • The weakest link may be the physical distribution system, just-in-time delivery.

The consequence of unrealistic scenario planning for a mild pandemic and no loss of law and order, no collapse, is likely to be millions of lost lives due to politically correct plans and gross unpreparedness. The assumptions of DHS Pandemic Influenza Scenario 3 contradict the “Lessons Learned” from Katrina that DHS and the Bush White House published:

While the National Planning Scenarios have been effective tools for generating dialogue on response capabilities, they do not fully anticipate some of the worst disaster scenarios. . . If the purpose of the National Planning Scenarios is to provide a foundation for identifying the capabilities required to meet all hazards, the Scenarios must press us to confront the most destructive challenges. . . . [W]e must revise the planning scenarios to make them more challenging.

Like many government reports, little was done to execute the recommendations in that report.

Another dangerous set of assumptions involve levels of worker absenteeism, particularly in law enforcement and the food and transportation sector, which are key to avoiding lawlessness and higher casualties in a collapse. Government publications on pandemic preparedness often cite worker absenteeism rates of up to 40%. A 2009 study of health care workers who were asked about their willingness to report to work for a smallpox, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), or other dangerous diseases found worker absenteeism rates above 40%. Many people are going to stay home rather than risk exposure to a deadly virus, risk getting killed by marauders, or risk having their family or home attacked while they are at work.

Studies thus far do not support the reasoning behind the 40% absenteeism rate used by national planners. When developing these rates, the numbers must reflect the risk people take at work combined with the risks they take of endangering their families by unknowingly bringing home a deadly virus or leaving their families vulnerable to other dangers while they are away. Considerations must be made for the impacts of the trigger event (e.g., a pandemic, no electric system, no reliable law enforcement due to some other widespread big disaster) in addition to the impacts of lawlessness on a scale the United States has yet to experience. The impacts of social media spreading rumors and panic could also affect absenteeism rates.

Businessmen who attended a conference on dealing with an H1N1 influenza pandemic (not a very lethal form of flu) in 2009 said worker absenteeism was their greatest concern. They were uncertain what absenteeism rates would be but, in a poll taken, their estimates were much higher than the “baseline” or “anticipated” rates of modeling cited earlier.

Deadly Combination: Supply Chains & Violence

The National Planning Scenarios ignore human nature, past disaster experiences (which are less significant than a pandemic, loss of the electric system, or other widespread disaster), exercises like Clade X and Dark Winter, and common sense. After Katrina, lawlessness, looting, and worse was a significant problem. Most of the Guard troops who deployed for disaster recovery were used in a law enforcement and security role. For a longer lasting, far more deadly pandemic or loss of the electric system, the loss of law and order and its impact will be far worse.

Looting and violence will occur in a disaster, particularly to secure food and essential supplies. Whether avoiding exposure to viruses or avoiding marauders, truck drivers eventually will determine that it is unsafe to haul food. There is vague references to this in some DHS influenza pandemic documents: “movement restrictions and/or quarantines will disrupt the supply chains and municipal services”; “Business planners should assume some level of social disruption and plan for direct security risks to their operations and along their supply chain.” Katrina provided evidence that truck drivers will need military escort and protection, or they may refuse to work.

Chief of the National Guard, Lt Gen. Blum reported that, “truck drivers coming in with the most needed supplies, water, food, ice, shelter, medicine. . . . were afraid to come in. They had to be escorted in by National Guard convoys, which took other manpower away from the relief efforts to go help get the commercial truckers.” Due to security concerns, 1,000 FEMA employees set to arrive in New Orleans had to turn back, which agitated storm survivors in the Superdome. The level of demands on law enforcement personnel and lawlessness in a pandemic or no electrical power situation will be far worse than Katrina.

Failure of one link in the food production, processing, distribution, and retail chain could stop food deliveries. Depending on the time of year, much of the migrant labor workforce in the southwest U.S. may simply go home to avoid the virus, the risks of being exposed to crime, and desire to be with family during a crisis. The jobs in food harvesting and food manufacturing are generally low-skill, low-wage, and high-turnover jobs. Many of these workers may reason that they would be safer calling in sick or quitting their jobs. When people cannot get food, or fear they will not be able to, it is not just gangs that may steal and sometimes kill for food, but many common people who are just trying to keep themselves and their families alive. People will not simply stay home and die when faced without food and water.

It is not just grocery stores with a few days of perishable food that may disappear in hours due to panic buying, and probable looting. Gas stations need deliveries every one to three days (with normal demand). Hospitals do not have more than a few days of supply for daily patient needs. Water treatment plants keep only one to two weeks supply of chlorine on hand for water treatment. Whether there is panic buying or not, truck drivers will be urgently needed to replenish food and other essential supplies, as well as other workers needed in food processing and retail stores, water and power systems, etc.

Threats to transportation workers were noted in the 2006 Homeland Security Council pandemic influenza implementation plan, including the risk of lawlessness: “Transportation providers will be concerned about protecting their employees, risks to travelers and goods, and the potential impact on facilities and vehicles.” “Risks to travelers and goods” refers to fear of crime. Government officials are understandably nervous about accusing citizens of being criminal threats, so vague references to lawlessness are often used. The report went on to warn that “Due to expected high absenteeism, transportation services may be limited. Interstate movement will become increasingly constrained as the pandemic peaks and local travel restrictions may increase.” The national, high-level guidance was to assume quarantine road closures. This is not what was modeled or used for the assumptions of Scenario 3. Many trucking operations are small businesses. The national plan warns that some may “permanently cease operations due to the operational/financial burdens caused by the pandemic.”

The U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) planning assumptions for pandemic influenza states that, “provision of routine security services for the protection of critical infrastructure will require Federal augmentation.” Such augmentation includes helping with quarantine enforcement, supporting overwhelmed medical facilities, backing up civilian law enforcement, and protecting transportation and logistics. The DOD plan anticipated that security support would also be needed for pharmaceutical and vaccine production as well as assistance during civil disturbances, “DOD will augment civil law enforcement efforts to restore and maintain order.”

National planning scenarios assume that most people will go to work rather than stay at home. Most infrastructure systems outside of the public health and healthcare sector are predicted to continue to function at or near normal levels. These scenarios assume the economy keeps functioning, people stay calm, and there is no loss of law and order and no collapse. Large-scale lawlessness is a grossly neglected aspect of disaster consequence management planning. In terms of total fatalities, the fate of food production and transport as well as law enforcement may be most important in minimizing casualties.

This article is Part 5 of a six-part series on closing disaster recovery gaps and preparing for triggering events that could cascade into long-term societal disruptions:

Triggered Collapse, Part 1: A Nation Unprepared

Triggered Collapse, Part 2: Viral Pandemics

Triggered Collapse, Part 3: Lessons in Lawlessness

Triggered Collapse, Part 4: Cascading Consequences Beyond the Event

Triggered Collapse, Part 5: Gaps in National Disaster Planning Scenarios

Triggered Collapse, Part 6: A Nationwide Call to Action

Drew Miller

Drew Miller, Ph.D., a former intelligence officer, Pentagon Senior Executive Service official, and retired Air Force Reserve Colonel, business executive, management consultant. He was an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, receiving an academic scholarship to Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in public policy. He has published articles on the bioengineered pandemic threat and presented at national conferences on disaster preparedness. He served as a part-time elected official, county commissioner, and University of Nebraska Regent for 16 years, and continues to serve in the Civil Air Patrol.



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