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ICG Risk Blog - [ Think Dust Bowl and California, or Black Death and London, not Katrina and Texas, in response to pandemic migration ]

Think Dust Bowl and California, or Black Death and London, not Katrina and Texas, in response to pandemic migration


In an ongoing discussion of pandemic preparation (see State of H5N1 Avian flu (Un)preparedness), I'd flagged The science of New Orleans: Getting out of town alive as pointing to similar demands on those attempting to avoid pandemic hotspots, to which a colleague asked, "Do you envision an evacuation as a response to Avian Flu? Would we be safer to hunker down or head out to our vacation cottage or at Aunt Myra's in East Fork? Is this what we mean by social distancing?

Replied that I do not envision "an evacuation" as in a single or large scale federally sponsored event but rather an uncontrolled series of evacuations large and small initiated by individuals and heads of families. Nations do not evacuate willingly for many of the reasons we saw in Katrina:

  • Protracted political decision process between federal and state to evacuate
  • Insuring mechanics of arranging personnel and assets to perform the evacuation
  • Siting in-transit provisioning of assets such as gas, food and restrooms
  • Willing state or federal recipients at the evacuation terminus
  • Arranging return of evacuees
  • Ability to do some or all of the above under emergency or crisis conditions

I wrote a Katrina series in 2005 of which part 2, Repeating systemic faults of Katrina in Ritaimpacts this conversation:

In an attempt to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of Katrina (here, here and here) that left local authorities and police with little choice but to break the law in order to do their job, FEMA calls for mass evacuations from threatened coastal areas. With an estimated 1.8 million or more Texas and Louisiana residents under evacuation orders, hundreds of thousands of Houston residents attempted to move inland, primarily north and west, in what quickly became mass gridlock crawling at 'hours per mile' instead of miles per hour. Apparently no one thought of the secondary and tertiary effects of setting such mass flight in progress.

The triggering call in a pandemic may not be a FEMA call but an accumulation of smaller events that may escape federal and state notice until people are in motion. My first assumption is that, all things considered, motion will be a mixture of reflex, custom, history and access. A colleague's comment about retiring to the vacation cottage is an example as might be the historic Boston notion of sending its women and children north and west to higher elevation in order to escape the summer ills.

Katrina was an example of federal fecklessness and ultimate state assumption of responsibility. Consider the consequences if, for example, Texas had refused rather than facilitated evacuation and resettlement of Katrina evacuees. In the case of Katrina, by the time an organized evacuation was underway of those who could not leave of their own volition, the evacuees were seen as disadvantaged, generally poor and not in peak health, but not thought of as diseased and infectious.

In case of a pandemic, think 1930s Dust Bowl rather than Katrina where individual family migrations were intercepted and turned back, by force if necessary. Substitute California for Texas:

The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California. When they reached the border, they did not receive a warm welcome, as described in this 1935 excerpt from Collier's magazine. "Very erect and primly severe, [a man] addressed the slumped driver of a rolling wreck that screamed from every hinge, bearing and coupling. 'California's relief rolls are overcrowded now. No use to come farther,' he cried. The half-collapsed driver ignored him -- merely turned his head to be sure his numerous family was still with him. They were so tightly wedged in, that escape was impossible. 'There really is nothing for you here,' the neat trooperish young man went on. 'Nothing, really nothing.' And the forlorn man on the moaning car looked at him, dull, emotionless, incredibly weary, and said: 'So? Well, you ought to see what they got where I come from.' "

The Los Angeles police chief went so far as to send 125 policemen to act as bouncers at the state border, turning away "undesirables". Called "the bum brigade," by the press and the object of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, the LAPD posse was recalled only when the use of city funds for this work was questioned...

As roadside camps of poverty-stricken migrants proliferated, growers pressured sheriffs to break them up. Groups of vigilantes beat up migrants, accusing them of being Communists, and burned their shacks to the ground.

Had not Roosevelt intervened, things could have become much worse, much as they did in England during its plague epidemics:

In 1563, London experienced another outbreak of plague, considered one of the worst incidences of plague ever seen in the city. The bubonic plague took almost 80,000 lives, between one quarter and one third of London's population at that time. Statistics show that 1000 people died weekly in mid August , 1600 per week in September, and 1800 per week in October.

Fleeing form the cities and towns was common, especially by wealthy families who had country homes. Queen Elizabeth I was no exception. She took great precaution to protect herself and the court from plague. When plague broke out in London in 1563, Elizabeth moved her court to Windsor Castle. She erected gallows and ordered that anyone coming from London was to be hanged. She also prohibited the import of goods as a measure to prevent the spread of plague to her court.

Later, in 1578, when plague broke out once again, Elizabeth took action. This time she ordered physicians to produce cures and preventative medicine. Also, most public assemblies were outlawed. All taverns, plays, and ale-houses were ordered closed.

Many smaller villages and hamlets imitated court practice, barricading themselves against travelers. Despite this resistance, people moved then and will do so in a current pandemic, i.e., some people will move in an attempt to better their condition while others will see their betterment in obstructing that movement. I also look to series such as SAMP (Southern African Migration Project) for xenophobic responses to migration. (See here and here.) Van Heerden, for example, has an interesting diagram of factors influencing "disease, fatalities, injuries, epidemiology, toxicoligy, sociology and environmental health" in COASTAL LAND LOSS: HURRICANES AND NEW ORLEANS that I would like to see adapted to pandemic evacuation.

The nature of a pandemic will transmogrify in unpredicted ways that defy pat scenario response analysis, but that does not mean that federal and state entities should consider the impacts of evacuations that degrade transportation arteries that are otherwise assumed open to state/federal initiatives to deal with a pandemic.

The travel page (with links to state pages) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Pandemic Flu page is about as helpful as it gets. A cursory read shows the need for thoughtful individual and community effort as it is unlikely that federal assets will be uniformly available to respond to support requests. See The Need For Personal And Community Preparedness, Preparing for Persuasion and Lessons From Katrina.

The travel industry is planning; the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) is one member of the travel community that is already thinking about a flu pandemic, and well they should, as their members will on the front lines of dislocated travelers:

AH&LA is tracking this issue very closely and providing members with the most current information available... AH&LA's Loss Prevention Committee is coordinating with government agencies on industry-wide efforts. AH&LA has established contact with key leaders at HHS and other departments to ensure members have all the tools and information they need to ensure the safety of employees and guests in the event that the worst-case scenario develops. While it is impossible to predict when a pandemic will strike, having a plan in place before that happens is the best way to minimize disruptions at your property... Crafting a plan for a flu pandemic is critical to any hotel's emergency preparedness efforts, and now is the time to develop those plans-before final warning signs are detected.

Preparing for Persuasion
Posted by Nedra Weinreich
Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog May 22-June 27
Posted May 25, 2007 at 7:28 am

Lessons From Katrina
Posted by Albert Ruesga
Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog May 22-June 27
Posted May 25, 2007 at 12:55 pm

The science of New Orleans: Getting out of town alive
Posted by Harry Fuller
May 23, 2007 2:51 PM PDT

The Need For Personal And Community Preparedness
Posted by Greg Dworkin
Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog May 22-June 27
Posted May 21, 2007 at 5:46 pm

Unmasking the 1918 Influenza Virus: An Important Step Toward Pandemic Influenza Preparedness
Anthony S. Fauci, Julie L. Gerberding
National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
October 5, 2005

Ivor Ll. van Heerden, Director and Ahmet Binselam, GIS Supervisor
Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes
Louisiana State University
20 July 2004


Ivor L. van Heerden, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes
LSU Hurricane Center, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA
July 2004

HIV/AIDS and Children's Migration in South Africa
Migration Policy Series No. 33
Series Editor: Jonathan Crush
Southern African Migration Project (SAMP)

Regionalizing Xenophobia? Citizen Attitudes to Immigration and Refugee Policy in Southern Africa
Migration Policy Series No. 30
Series Editor: Jonathan Crush
Southern African Migration Project (SAMP)

Surviving the Dust Bowl
written and produced by Chana Gazit
co-produced and edited by David Steward
The American Experience, WGBH Boston, Mass.

Gordon Housworth

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