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Disaster Zone: The Big One, COVID-19 Tsunami


March 24, 2020 by Eric Holdeman
Category: COVID-19

Disaster Zone: The Big One, COVID-19 Tsunami

As an emergency manager I’ve always thought that the “Big One,” that long anticipated mega disaster, would come to the Pacific Northwest in the form of an earthquake emanating either from the Cascadia Subduction Fault or the Seattle Fault Zones. I was wrong! Our Big One, the coronavirus, or COVID-19, is at our doorstep ringing the doorbell right now. Unlike an unannounced earthquake, we have been fortunate to have had a bit of warning to become prepared.

Understand What’s Coming

While I am working from home, sharing what information I can gather on events surrounding the coronavirus, I still have interactions with the general population of people living in and around the Puget Sound. People don’t understand what is coming their way — soon, very soon. I equate it to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and how people reacted to that event. Because there was no earthquake felt in Thailand, people were curious about the ocean receding and some went to the beaches to investigate, not knowing about the wave that was to come.  

I was asked on March 14 by a locally elected official, “Where are we on a scale of 1-10 with this COVID-19 event?” I replied, “a 2.” Most people have taken some steps to become prepared, many have, oddly, focused on toilet paper. People are not sensing the danger that is lurking right now in our communities across the nation because of a lack of testing kits. Their behavior in continuing to gather in groups of people in public spaces indicates that they don’t understand the threat to themselves and the community. The size of the COVID-19 wave is still not known. Today, March 23, I’ve moved my rating up to a “5” because of the actions being taken nationally to shut down businesses and the economy and to order people to “Stay at home.”

Mixed Messages

What has contributed to the lack of concern are the mixed messages coming from what we call in emergency management terms, the National Command Authorities. While the White House might be sending alternating views about test kits and the potential severity of COVID-19, I have seen public health authorities here, and governors in many states, taking actions to mitigate what impact the virus might bring to the health of the American people. Even as I write this more governors are telling their citizens to “Stay at home!”

Flying Blind

If you think that the measures taken to date have gone too far — good! They need to go further. Today we are flying blind on where the virus is and the extent of existing infections in our states and communities. More needs to be done to blunt the anticipated onslaught of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control is now recommending limiting groups of people to only 10. If even more draconian measures are mandated by governments — do your part, follow those directions, and we can get through this.

Supporting Public Health Efforts

The hardest hit segment of our society will be the medical community. Mirroring our national penchant for quarterly profits, the just-in-time delivery of goods and services and the eliminating of excess capacity, like hospital beds, has hollowed out our medical surge capability. All medical authorities would agree with me that we are not ready for the mass care event we are anticipating. We can be at a “10” for the medical community within 2-3 weeks here in the State of Washington and nationally.

Hospitals everywhere are making plans, but they are short of personnel and protective equipment like the gowns, face protection, masks, and gloves that are used extensively in infection control situations. There are not enough ventilators or technicians for every patient who will need one.

What can you do as an individual? Take the warnings and the instructions of the medical professionals and public health professionals seriously. Parents need to sit their teenagers down and explain to them that they have a role to play in reducing the community infection rate. Eliminate physical contact with older people who have reduced resistance to infections and underlying medical conditions.

Here are things you should consider doing to support your medical community where you have jurisdictional responsibility.

  • Recognize that there is a pre-hospital medical system. It starts with the 911 Center for your community and extends to the police and fire who respond to calls. Check on their operations and welfare. COVID-19 procedures should have been implemented by now.
  • Use your personal influence as an elected or appointed government official to encourage your residents to obey the “Stay-at-home” order that has been issued by the governor. If you produce a newsletter, use that and all other forms of communication available to you to get your message out.
  • Be realistic about how long this event will go on. Many governments around the nation have implemented stay-at-home orders for 2-3 weeks. I estimate that we will be in the depth of the medical crisis at that point. Prepare people to be thinking longer than just a few weeks, perhaps well into May.
  • Be prepared to personally think “out of the box” for how we get through this event. We are a nation of entrepreneurs, so take advantage of people coming forward with new ideas of how to help. 

The only question I have at this point is not if there will be a COVID-19 wave of infections and a swamping of our medical facilities, but only what the size of the wave will be. It is time for us to act as responsible individuals and pull together as a community. We are counting on one another to each do their part!


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Eric Holdeman

Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. He is the Principal for Eric Holdeman and Associates and serves the Director for the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

He is a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles for professional journals and opinion pieces for local, regional and national newspapers including the Washington Post. He is a Senior Fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine, where he blogs about emergency management and homeland security at www.disaster-zone.com.

Eric is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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