Shortly after 9/11, numerous letters laced with anthrax were circulated by mail and delivered to prominent members of Congress and the media. This, coupled with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, led to the “largest investment in public health preparedness in our nation’s history.” The largest legacy of this investment: the Department of Homeland Security in November of 2002, which oversees border security, cyber security, anti-terrorism and disaster management, and today boasts an annual budget of more than $50 billion.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 150,000 Americans, Jeffrey Schlegelmilch is pushing for a major rethinking of preparedness at a level comparable to the formation of Homeland Security. His prescient new book, “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters,” which was authored before the pandemic but includes a foreword addressing the coronavirus pandemic, urges communities and leaders to reconsider how we approach and respond to disasters, advocating for more centralized authority to better coordinate disaster response and recovery efforts, and by taking a preventive approach rather than a reactive one.

Emergency management professionals like Schlegelmilch — who was recently named director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute — think of disasters in terms of “threats” (external hazards) and “vulnerabilities” (underlying susceptibilities that may exacerbate or mitigate threats). For example, COVID-19 is a threat, whereas our global supply chain is a vulnerability because it is so interconnected that any disruption might cause a major bottleneck or shortage.

Organized around five types of disaster — biothreats, climate change, infrastructure failures, cyberthreats, and nuclear conflict — “Rethinking Readiness” offers a perfunctory overview of these various threats, furnished with historical examples, and the ways in which these disasters might overlap. Each section is divvied up into manageable, bite-sized chunks so as not to overwhelm the reader with depressing forecasts and technical jargon, and each follows a similar template.

The format is effective, if predictable, and hits the following beats: open with a current event, mine history for other catastrophic examples, review ongoing efforts to combat this type of disaster, and stress what more ought to be done. It is simple and straightforward, if a bit repetitive. But, to be fair, risk assessment has never been riveting stuff.

More interesting (and morbid) are the ways in which disasters can overlap with one another. The most far-reaching disaster is undoubtedly climate change. Climate change can affect the spread of disease (warming environments expand areas that mosquitoes with malaria or dengue can inhabit), infrastructure (coastal cities are vulnerable to rising sea levels), and may strain international relations by increasing competition for natural resources.

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Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, shown at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is the director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness and is the author of the timely new book “Rethinking Readiness.” (Jonathan Sury)
Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, shown at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is the director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness and is the author of the timely new book “Rethinking Readiness.” (Jonathan Sury)

Schlegelmilch calls for greater scrutiny toward public officials, many of whom take credit for how much recovery funding they earmark for their constituents. Rather than celebrating these Band-Aid funds, Schlegelmilch urges voters to ask why their elected officials were not prepared to manage that disaster in the first place. “Policymaking,” Schlegelmilch writes, “[is] reactionary and tends to be disproportionately focused on treatment rather than prevention.”

This push for accountability is appropriate for the national level, but Schlegelmilch could have been more forceful at the global level by holding developed nations to a higher standard. Developed nations, like the United States, are simultaneously the least vulnerable to disasters (they usually have more resilient infrastructure and a more stable economy, which smooths the recovery process) and the greatest instigator of disasters (major contributors to carbon emissions, excessive nuclear arsenals, etc.).

If there was ever a moment when the political will might be strong enough to enact some of the policy ideas Schlegelmilch sketches, it would be now.

“One encouraging thing I’ve seen is calls for a COVID Commission, much like the 9/11 Commission,” Schlegelmilch said in a recent phone interview. But, apart from this, a lot of the changes are happening in a piecemeal fashion, and they mostly consist of increased funding to existing agencies. For Schlegelmilch, this is a shortsighted approach and falls well short of the “wholesale legislative change” he’d like to see.

“Whether we look nationally or globally, there was no shortage of warning signs about a pending pandemic,” said Schlegelmilch. Citing previous shortages in personal protective equipment during outbreaks of bird flu in 2005 and H1N1 in 2009, Schlegelmilch noted, “We could see how much [PPE] one hospital needed and extrapolate that to a pandemic, and yet it never … got built into the operational costs of hospitals and health care infrastructure.”

Schlegelmilch described a glaring “disconnect” between our knowledge of looming threats and our actions. Though its dry prose is somewhat wanting, “Rethinking Readiness” addresses this disconnect and, when read in the context of the current prolonged disaster of COVID-19, when the baseline for normality has shifted dramatically, perhaps our approach toward disaster management might shift as well.