This year has seen an unprecedented hurricane season and it’s always “earthquake season” in many parts of the country. In this episode, Glynn Cosker talks to American Military University Dean Dr. Christopher Reynolds about the three decades he spent in emergency and disaster management responding to catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake. Hear about the lessons learned from those events and tips to prepare for any type of natural disaster.
Glynn Cosker: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I’m Glynn Cosker, your host. Joining me today is Dr. Chris Reynolds, AMU’s Dean and Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development. He is a certified emergency manager through IAEM.
His career in emergency and disaster management spans more than three decades and includes some on-the-ground responses to the Oklahoma City bombing, various major hurricanes over the years, including Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Katrina, and various earthquake responses and recovery operations, including the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Dr. Reynolds, Did I miss anything?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: No, Glynn. I think you pretty much covered it all.
Glynn Cosker: Today, we’re going to discuss the recent past, the present, and the future as we navigate through this bloody awful year that we’ve had so far. We are going to chat about topics related to emergency management preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. So, let’s jump on in.
Chris, the hurricane season seems to be never ending. There’s been 25 maybe, even 26 named storms at this point. We’ve had some major hurricanes. When they start getting into naming them alpha, gamma and something like your college frat house, we know we’ve got a lot of hurricanes on our hands, because obviously, the names start at A and then once they get to Z, they have to start doing other ones.
So, what has been your take on this hurricane season? How have we reacted and responded to some of the more heavier hurricanes that made landfall this year?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, Glynn, that’s a very good question. I think that most of the listeners can agree that the 2020 hurricane season has been really unprecedented in terms of the number of storms. Now, we’ve gone into the Greek alphabet before during hurricane seasons, but we haven’t really gone into the Greek alphabet, where we’ve had named storms strike the continental United States. So, it’s unprecedented.
I think that in terms of preparedness, I think that the states that line the Gulf Coast as well as those that line the Atlantic do like they do every year, they prepare. Most states that are involved in active hurricane seasons along the coast prepare for the seasons well in advance.
As you indicated in your opening about essentially the four phases of emergency management with preparedness and mitigation, response and recovery, they’re always in one of those phases, even in the offseason, mitigating and preparing for the next season. So, in terms of the professionals, I think they’re doing a really good job.
Unfortunately, in terms of the population, I think that they’re becoming weary. I mean, the poor folks up along the northern Gulf Coast of Mexico, they’ve had a couple storms this year, where it’s created a lot of damage. There’s been some fatalities that have also occurred, and they’re worn out. They’re tired, just as the responders are tired.
Glynn Cosker: Yeah. You really can’t blame them for being tired. The people that live, as you said, in the states that are most affected by hurricanes that come through, they must be pulling their hair out. I live in New Hampshire. We don’t get too many major storms. Well, we get a lot of snowstorms, of course, but it’s very unusual for the remnants of a hurricane or something like that to hit us.
But those people that live in obviously, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. I mean, if you were to give one piece of advice or maybe a few, what would be your top three preparedness pieces of advice to give people living in the crosshairs of some of these major storms that happen every year?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, that’s a great question. I think, first of all, as you indicated, it goes beyond the coastal states, because these storms come inland. They’ll sweep across the continental United States and bring in heavy rain, wind and a lot of tornadoes with them. They create additional damages.
My best advice to people that are in areas where they’re subject to either a direct strike or ancillary strikes due to the winds and the heavy rain and tornadoes is to assure that you have a plan. That the family members have a family plan that includes what to do. Whether it be going into the basement for tornado or be going to a shelter or be going to high ground, families should have an idea of what they are going to do when a storm comes or when a disaster comes.
If in fact families decide to shelter-in-place and stay at home and it’s safe to do so, they should also have at least three days or 72 hours of sustenance. Meaning they should have dry foods, non-perishables that they can rely upon to survive for three days in the event services are cut off or responders can’t get to you, if in fact, you have damage to your home and you can’t get out.
The third thing is to make sure that you have your medications and that you have things for children to keep them busy, games or cards or something, coloring books that will keep their minds occupied while you’re sheltering in place or even while you’re going to an evacuation shelter. The better prepared a family is to survive a disaster, the more apt they are to survive that disaster. So, that really is critically important.
Glynn Cosker: Absolutely, it is. You touched on a few things there, particularly your emergency kits, which I would guess that quite a few people in the country don’t really know what to put in that thing and aren’t really that aware.
You mentioned, of course, canned foods and medications, but there’s a whole lot more items that could go into one of those kits, especially if it’s some sort of catastrophic event that’s going on around you, right?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Yes, correct. Some of the things you want to consider too, I believe in practicing what you preach. I preach the same here with my family in Tampa, Florida. We’re right in the middle of the hurricane center in terms of where the storms will come up the Gulf of Mexico.
Being sure that you have your important papers in watertight containers. That if you are evacuating, that you take some of those papers with you, that you have a form of identification. That you have cash available, because a lot of times, the services for credit cards won’t be available because the lines may be down. So, you should have cash with you to pay for items that you’re able to find should you need them.
Of course, you want to make sure too that whatever you have at your home that you want to make sure it’s safe, move it to higher floors or move it up onto desks, cover them with plastic and so forth in the event that there’s heavy rain or there’s a breach in the ceiling or the roof that allows rainwater or some of the outside things to come in that could damage your property. So, that’s other things you want to consider.
Glynn Cosker: Right. Of course, I always find it interesting when there’s a major hurricane approaching, obviously, all of the media outlets are covering it. You’ve got people, reporters and meteorologists and people like that, and emergency managers who are giving advice on this major hurricane that might be coming through.
But then, of course, once it makes landfall, oftentimes, the news stops. Really, the story is just beginning, isn’t it? I mean, because once that storm, it might lose a little bit of power and it won’t be on everybody’s lips the day after it makes landfall, but there’s a lot of other terrible things that can happen inland with these storms, right?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Oh, absolutely. You bring up a good point. I think all of us realize that the 24-hour news cycle requires the stations or the networks to outdo one another in terms of whether it be the reporter standing in the 125-mile an hour wind being blown sideways, trying to stand up and talk about how horrific the storm is, that’s a lot of visual appeal.
It’s pretty stunning from an observers’ point of view to watch and see the fury of nature and mankind standing against it, but as you noted, once the storm makes landfall, pretty much the coverage seeks out the next disaster or the next story that’s going to run the news cycle.
What we in emergency management like to say is that honestly, the recovery operation is the longest and it takes the longest to go through. So, in terms of the phases of emergency management, after the storm has come through when we go into a recovery phase, that can last sometimes years before recovery is finally truly realized.
There are a lot of examples, Hurricane Michael that hit Panama City and my former duty station, Tyndall Air Force Base, essentially wiping Tyndall Air Force Base off the map. They’re still in recovery. There are storms around the United States where that’s an example.
The human side of the stories or the real misery for folks that aren’t directly impacted by a storm begin after landfall, because that’s when services are down. The electricity is out. Potable water is not available. Trash pickup is gone. There’s no telephone service. Cell towers are down.
That’s why I go back to what we talked about earlier, Glynn, of making sure that you have a plan, number one. Number two, that you have sustenance, that you have the things your family needs to survive.
Having a generator is important. Moreover, knowing how to operate that generator, making sure that it’s outside, that it’s nowhere close to a building where carbon monoxide can come in and hurt yourselves or your family members.
Those are some of the preparedness items that families want to consider, because it helps lessen the severity of not having services. If you’ve got a generator that can run a small television or a portable radio or a refrigerator, life is going to be a little bit easier for you in those uncertain times.
Glynn Cosker: Absolutely true. Of course, you’ve been on the ground at some of these disasters that you just referenced, or you’ve referenced how serious they can be.
So, why don’t you give us some recollection of perhaps Hurricane Katrina? Because that is the one storm that epitomizes every other storm as far as how catastrophic, devastating it was to not just Louisiana but bordering states. So, if you can think back, that’s 15 years ago now, but what was it like? What was the main part of that recovery operation that stuck out in your mind?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, Katrina was, as you said, quite a storm. The wind and rain was certainly bad, but the real disaster was on the levee’s gave way, and there was a widespread flooding that occurred. I was a Captain in the United States Air Force at the time, Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. My Aeromedical Evacuation Liaison Team was mobilized and sent to Louis Armstrong International Airport the day after Katrina hit. We set up our operation at the airport, doing aeromedical evacuation.
People were being rescued from the different parishes surrounding New Orleans and being flown to Louis Armstrong. We would medically clear them or check them, and then we would fly them out to receiving states or receiving hospitals.
It was a total and complete mobilization within the United States, including the active duty. The 82nd Airborne in fact was brought in to provide security down in New Orleans, because there were concerns about looting and some lawlessness occurring.
In fact, it was General Russel Honoré, who was the combined combatant commander that ran the military side of it, who was the main person that we reported to and what I did.
So, my recollections are just flying around New Orleans and seeing the vast flooding, seeing the debris piles everywhere, seeing 11, 12, 13 feet of water down Bourbon Street or down some of the side streets just completely inundated the area.
There was really no public services available. Law enforcement was doing the best job they could. Fire and rescue were doing the best job they could. Of course, we were doing the best job we could.
Eventually, I flew down via rotary lift down do Mill Chase, which there was an Air Station there where we were launching and recovering C-130 Hercules aircraft with evacuees. It was a 24/7 operation. That is how many people were impacted in New Orleans.
I spent about a month there. As I said earlier, when we were first talking about the recovery phase, in some respects, New Orleans is still in a recovery phase, some 15 years later after Katrina.
Glynn Cosker: That’s quite an amazing thing to hear, but I can understand why, because my next question in fact was going to be what if this “perfect storm”—nothing perfect about it in certain ways but you know what I mean by that. This Category 5, perhaps hurricane that’s just heading straight towards New Orleans again in the future, are they prepared to deal with such a threat now; or is it a case of there was some lessons learned, but some that weren’t?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, I definitely think they’re better prepared. To those of us in the emergency management community know that Katrina essentially rewrote the book in terms of hurricane preparedness and response.
In fact, the Post-Katrina Reform Act that was passed after Hurricane Katrina made some significant changes to FEMA, as well as to the posture of incoming help or the leaning forward of assistance that will come and help during hurricane.
It also strengthened the understanding of the responsibilities of local mutual aid to make sure that the parishes were all working together to provide mutual aid if needed, as well as outside sources. We have what’s called the Emergency Management Compact. What that compact does is that provides emergency assistance should it be needed from surrounding states around a state or community that’s stricken by a disaster.
Now, in your example of a Category 5 hurricane hitting, I would tell you that any Cat 5 hurricane hitting anywhere that no community has really fully prepared for, because the devastation and catastrophic nature of such a storm would likely result in a large loss of life as well as great loss of infrastructure.
Again, we would look at making sure that the population that we’re in, areas that are in flood zones that are in tidal areas were evacuated and put in shelters, as well as getting people that might be susceptible to high winds, getting them in shelters too.
In terms of preparedness, yes, we’re better prepared than we were during Hurricane Katrina. Would we be successful in responding to and recovering from? I think we would, but I think like any disaster that hits, we always have lessons learned where we see that we could have done things perhaps better in some respects.
Glynn Cosker: Let’s scare our audience even more, moving on to earthquakes. I shouldn’t be light about the subject, but I do know that you have been around earthquake zones, particularly the one in Haiti, which was a fairly strong quake. But are we ready in this country for “the big one,” so to speak?
Now, a lot of people when they think about the big one, they think about California, because obviously that’s the state in the US, along with Alaska, which not too many people worry about, unfortunately, but Alaska too. But California is the earthquake state, so to speak.
But then there’s little known area called the New Madrid Zone, which is in the midwest, which actually had the worst earthquake in modern or United States history. A lot of people would think that the worst earthquake to ever hit the US would probably, on the mainland, I’m talking about, not counting Alaska.
Most people would think it would be in California, but there was this series of earthquakes in the New Madrid Zone in the early 1800. It was a huge event in the early 1800s. What would happen now? Are we ready for something like that to happen, Chris?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, first of all, are we ready? I mean, we’re ready to an extent, to a degree, but to say that we’re fully prepared for really any disaster is folly, because the nature of disasters is that it brings the unknown. You can only be prepared so much.
I mean, you talk about New Madrid Zone. 1810, 1811, 1812 timeframe, when that hit, there really wasn’t much infrastructure in Missouri, Kansas, in that area. It was mainly frontier. So, in terms of the earthquake affecting population or it affecting infrastructure, there really wasn’t that much population or infrastructure that was impacted. Although, as you said, it was the largest quake that we’ve had in the continental United States.
I think the earthquake that stands out in most everyone’s mind is the San Francisco earthquake in the early 1900s. That created so much damage. Go forward in history to other earthquakes, the great Alaska earthquake. Of course, then we have the Loma Prieta earthquake that happened.
Many people were watching game one or five or six of the World Series when Loma Prieta hit. The Oakland Bridge partially collapsed. Apartment buildings collapsed. That got a lot of attention, got a lot of news. There were a lot of fatalities that came out of that.
What I talked about with Hurricane Katrina, about the post-Katrina reformat, every time there’s been an earthquake disaster, there have been different laws or different expectations that have been brought out from after-action reports on how to handle it differently.
Just like South Florida has a Southern Florida Building Code that’s based on hurricane preparedness, on the West Coast, in California, they’ve got a building code out there strictly to deal with earthquakes that talk about foundations and what’s the best type of foundation to have on a high rise structure that doesn’t cause the building the fall during liquefaction or when the ground turns essentially into a liquid and it sinks the building.
I think that in terms of a nation, I think we’re better prepared in terms of logistics and being able to send help, but an earthquake striking a major city, if the San Andreas Fault perhaps hit and it reacted in San Francisco or Los Angeles, I think just based on the population centers alone, there would be a number of fatalities. The infrastructure would be greatly impacted.
Just like you’d see in any disaster, you’d have fires, and you’d have floods. You name pretty much everything that could impact a community. I think that as a nation, we could handle it in the long term. In the short term, I think there’d be a lot of confusion.
If you look at California right now that’s dealing with wildfires, they’ve got an unprecedented number of wildfires that are occurring in the northern part of the state. So, they’re already handling disasters now. If you throw an earthquake on top of the wildfires, the loss of life would be significant. I think that it would require a much greater federal response to bring in help and assistance.
Glynn Cosker: Absolutely right. Earlier, I referred to the earthquake zone in the Midwest as the New Madrid Zone. Of course, that’s my European background and you pronounced it correctly, which in fact, I did know. I did know how to pronounce it. It just slipped my mind, the New Madrid Zone.
Just to give our audience some context, that was an 8.0 magnitude, they think, because obviously, there was no Richter scale in 1811. But that’s pretty much what it was, about 7.8 or 8.0. That was in the winter of 1811 into 1812. There weren’t that many people living in that area of the country back then. Of course, now you’ve got the metropolitan areas of Memphis, Tennessee and St. Louis.
Again, don’t want to scare our listeners, but preparedness is vital, because there would be some unprecedented damage to that area of the country if God forbid, another 8.0 earthquake hit metro St. Louis and metro Memphis.
What is it that you are supposed to do if caught in an earthquake? I mean, what is the protocol that you should follow if you’re in a house or in a building or outside? What are the different things that you can do to protect yourself during an earthquake?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, sure. I mean, first, if you’re in a building, you want to find an interior, preferably a load bearing wall in a corner, where it will create a void if a collapse occurs because survival occurs within the voids. You can have different configuration of voids.
If you have the capability, you want to get outside and get out of a building. It’s not safe to be in a building in an earthquake, by any means, because there’s no telling what the mechanics of the earthquake are going to do in collapsing the building around you.
Just to put it in perspective, Glynn, you talked about New Madrid being 8.0 on the Richter scale. The Haitian earthquake in 2010 was a 7.0 on the Richter scale. It resulted in about 300,000 fatalities or not fatalities, but injuries. And then there were, of course, a lesser number of fatalities that occurred from it.
But comparing a Haitian infrastructure to the infrastructure of St. Louis, yes, they both have infrastructure, but I think in areas like St. Louis or Memphis, you have a much greater infrastructure. You have larger population centers in those areas. If that type of earthquake hit today, I think that again, it’d be much like we talked about a little while ago in California, it would be unprecedented.
So, earthquake preparedness, because there really is no earthquake season, it’s always earthquake season, is to be sure that you have a family communications plan on where you’re going to be, what you’re going to do. You want to know where shelter locations are. If you’re inside, get outside. If you’re in a low area, you should seek higher ground, because in lower ground, you may be susceptible to flash flooding. That’s something that you don’t want to have to deal with.
Glynn Cosker: Right, of course, because if you’re on the lower ground and the earthquake hits and it takes out the pipes in whatever building you’re in, you got water spewing everywhere as well. You might be trapped.
Again, not to scare our audience too much, but what we’ve discussed really, Chris, is there are certain things that you can’t prepare for. There are certain things that you can prepare for.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Absolutely. Preparedness is critical, because it’s something that families can do, individuals can do. Those that know me and have known me know that I’m famous for a phrase that I call, “Have a plan.” I use that all the time. I know that sometimes my colleagues and friends may be irritated by me using it. But, if I use it enough, I’m hoping that they’ll realize that they themselves should have a plan.
Whether it’s making sure that your gasoline tank is always above half a tank. During hurricane season, making sure that you know you have a flyaway kit or a go-bag that has essential items in it; that you have enough medication for three days; that you have enough food for sustenance for three days if you need it. If it makes people think that “Wow, maybe I should listen to that and have that plan,” then I’ll know I’ve done my job, because that’s what’s important.
Glynn Cosker: I’d like to thank you very much for being my guest today.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Thank you so much, Glynn. I appreciate the opportunity. I look forward to working and chatting with you going forward.
Glynn Cosker: Thank you for joining us today. I’m Glynn Cosker. Join us again on a future episode. Thank you.