Imagine if, as happens every thousand years or so, an asteroid the size of a football stadium were cruising toward Earth at 35,000 miles per hour, headed straight for the southern coast of the US.
According to a protocol outlined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2014, here’s what would happen: President Trump would sign an executive order requiring evacuations. His face would probably appear on every TV network, warning those in the asteroid’s sights to get out or perish.
Would anyone believe him?
At the heart of this question is an unprecedented crisis of credibility. At the 100-day mark, Trump was viewed as “honest and trustworthy” by only 36% of the public — the lowest number ever recorded this early in a presidency — raising questions about his effectiveness in a crisis. And given his history of dubious statements on climate change and vaccines, this mistrust might be especially dangerous in a catastrophe rooted in science — like an asteroid, nuclear spill, tsunami, volcanic eruption, or the next Ebola.
“It’s very hard to have a functional democracy if people don’t trust the government,” Matthew Baum, a public opinion scholar at Harvard, told BuzzFeed News. “And we’ve never had the leader sitting there before who has decried the government as rigged or crooked.”
Even unpopular presidents tend to be listened to in the face of an existential threat. Still, evacuation is the name of the game in natural disasters, and it’s a game of percentages. If only 5% of the 123 million people who live on US coastlines did not believe an evacuation warning, that would still mean death counts in the tens of thousands. Some experts fear that a disaster warning from the 45th president — who has promised to dismantle many federal agencies, and has not yet named a CDC chief or surgeon general — would be met with disbelief and inaction that could jeopardize human lives.
“As far as a response to natural disasters, low approval should indeed hurt his authority and ability to get public buy-in for whatever course of action he would choose,” political scientist Ryan Carlin of Georgia State University told BuzzFeed News by email.
It’s worth thinking about, he added, because chances are good that some sort of natural disaster will strike in the next four years. Federal responses to calamities — from Three Mile Island in 1979 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 — have played defining roles in a long list of presidencies.
Here’s how some disasters, natural and unnatural, might go down today. They all require swift and seamless cooperation from local, state, and federal agencies, and from the president, who makes the disaster declaration that sets the vast bureaucratic machinery into motion.
On May 20, 2014, FEMA officials met with asteroid experts from NASA, the national labs, and the Aerospace Corporation to “walk through” the potential impact of an unprecedented, 1,000-foot asteroid hitting the Gulf of Mexico.
In the hypothetical scenario, obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information request, a NASA attempt to deflect the asteroid leaves behind a 150-foot wide fragment bearing down on the East Coast. In the worst case, the documents conclude, the airblast from the fragment might unleash a 10.6 megaton blast, equivalent to dropping 10 B83 hydrogen bombs, the mainstay of US nuclear forces, into the sky.
In this situation, the documents say, NASA would handle early warnings about the asteroid, turning the responsibility over to FEMA after the deflection attempt fails. The president would face the problem a year ahead of the impact, issuing an executive order calling for evacuations.
In another scenario, the asteroid passes over Houston and bursts above the Gulf of Mexico, exciting tsunami waves as high as 10 feet across the Gulf Coast. “Avoid these messages: Don’t worry, don’t panic, we’re in control,” the documents warn.
For both scenarios, the plan stresses providing money, people, and transportation to local authorities to aid in evacuations. That would be especially important if disaster struck during an unpopular presidency.
“Typically, the public trusts messages from local government and news more when it comes to disaster plans,” Patricia Longstaff, a communications professor at Syracuse University, told BuzzFeed News. A successful evacuation ahead of a natural disaster therefore would depend more on the Trump administration priming state and city governments to deliver plans to the public, rather than the president himself.
If people trust their mayor, she said, then it doesn’t matter so much what they think of the president.
“The basic idea is that if FEMA issues a warning, it should not give the directions itself, the local authorities should serve them,” Longstaff told BuzzFeed News.
The most famous botch of an evacuation came with Hurricane Katrina, where plans failed on all levels. The city of New Orleans decided at the last minute to send busses to the Superdome, instead of out of the city. Nursing homes ignored authorities telling them to take shelter inside their own facilities, with tragic results. And FEMA waited until after the storm to ask for 1,100 busses to rescue stranded people.
Visitors to Yellowstone National Park, home to Old Faithful and about half of the world’s active geysers, are walking on top of the leftover cauldron of a “supervolcano” eruption from 630,000 years ago. A lake of magma and volcanic rock some 20 miles wide and 50 miles long slumbers beneath the caldera, carefully watched for signs of eruption today.
A series of minor earthquakes in the park that ended in 2009 spawned fears the supervolcano was “overdue” for an eruption (though the notion was quickly batted down by the US Geological Survey’s volcano observatory).
The effects of a supervolcano eruption would be catastrophic. A 2014 study suggested one would deposit ash in a 900-mile cone with flinders reaching anywhere from Los Angeles to Washington DC. The ash would pile up dozens of feet thick in the Northern Rockies and some 10 inches high in Salt Lake City.
The study estimated a 99.9% chance that the super volcano won’t erupt in this century. But if it did, it would begin with a series of moderate earthquakes off center from the magma chamber. A scientist at the volcano observatory would declare an emergency and an elaborately designed protocol, handing off warning from geologists to FEMA to the Department of Homeland Security, which would warn the public and stop planes from flying over the park.
The protocol calls for at least three days of warnings from federal agencies — and any orders from the president — before the eruptions begin.
Even if this happened during Trump’s tenure, and even if the public distrusted him, people tend to listen to respected agencies, such as the National Weather Service or NASA, according to Indiana University emergency planning expert Abdul-Akeem Sadiq. But if he strips science agencies of their expertise and authority, all bets are off.
In October of 2014, amid an Ebola outbreak that would eventually claim 11,325 lives in West Africa, a Doctors Without Borders nurse, Kaci Hickox, returned home to the US. She was quarantined for three days against her will by New Jersey governor Chris Christie because she had treated victims of the deadly disease, even though she had no symptoms.
Once released, she returned home to Maine, where Governor Paul LePage also tried to lock her up, calling her a health risk.
“I never had Ebola, and politicians who lie do nothing to protect your health,” Hickox wrote about her experience in The Guardian. “Too many political and civic leaders have allowed this fear to spread and some even fueled the flames.”
The quarantine drama came a little over a week after two nurses in Texas tested positive for the disease after treating an ill Liberian man. The CDC blamed the infections on a “breach in protocol.”
How well would a Trump administration, which still lacks key public health officials, has a health advisor who thought HIV research benefited Russian prostitutes, and is headed by a president who hangs out with antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., deal with a disease outbreak? Trump fired the US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, last week without naming a replacement, for example.
Traditionally the surgeon general has been a pivotal voice in past public health warnings, albeit one eclipsed in recent years by CDC directors or National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) chief Anthony Fauci. (Fauci has promised to stay on the job at least.) Murthy had just stepped out of the shadows with a well-received report on the nation’s opioid overdose epidemic — a public health crisis that contributed to the “build a wall” fervor of Trump’s campaign — which took 33,000 lives in 2015, and is expected to have taken many more in 2016, once final death tallies are collected.
“That’s a real concern, how will this administration decide if we need quarantines of airports or borders, how we will provide vaccinations,” emergency management expert Patrick Roberts of Virginia Tech told BuzzFeed News. “Governors are not going to sit back and wait for Donald Trump to take action.”
Complicating matters is the “‘new anti-vaccine' movement,” which Trump has publicly supported, outbreak expert Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine told BuzzFeed News, which claims there is a CDC conspiracy to hide the harmful effects of vaccines. (Needless to say, he and other doctors call this erroneous.)
For antivaxxers, Hotez said, “the one thing they all get behind is a government conspiracy.”
Public support for vaccination is a key factor in stopping an epidemic because successful efforts depend on “herd immunity” where a large proportion of the population needs inoculation to act as a firebreak on the spread of a disease. Defections from vaccination help explain outbreaks of whooping cough in California, mumps in Arkansas, and measles among the Amish in Ohio.
In a big epidemic, falling short of herd immunity can lead to an outbreak lasting far longer than necessary. Since 2014, the CDC has tracked 300 dangerous outbreaks in 160 nations, and 37 dangerous bugs, according to a recent Washington Post report on the administration’s failure to fill key public health positions.
Botching a disaster response is a famously good way to torpedo a presidency: George W. Bush’s “Heck of a job, Brownie,” moment after Hurricane Katrina defined the fecklessness of his administration. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill marked a low point for the Obama Administration, with the US Coast Guard and US Geological Survey initially endorsing botched underestimates of how much crude was spilling from the disaster site. Screw-ups on domestic disasters leave an administration exposed, Carlin said, unlike a terrorist attack or a military tragedy that has an outside enemy to blame.
For that reason, the basic premise of the Trump administration’s call to “deconstruct the administrative state,” in the words of advisor Steve Bannon, “is a terrible idea,” said Carlin. Those are the very agencies that the public trusts and will need to respond in an emergency.
Trump, for example, has proposed eliminating the $72 million budget for global health at the USAID, a $900 million cut to the Energy Department science office that helped figure out the Deepwater Horizon spill, and a $5.8 billion “catastrophic” cut to the NIH that produced Ebola and Zika vaccines. CDC would also be cut by $314 million and President Bush’s program to cut AIDS deaths overseas would be cut by $292 million. The EPA would lose a fifth of its employees.
“They actually have the knowhow to address most contingencies” in a disaster, Carlin said. “Ironically, Trump would presumably want to delegate such a response to experts, but if he cuts the EPA, CDC, and other key agencies down to a skeletal budget, he won't be able to.” ●
Jason Leopold contributed reporting to this story.
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Dan Vergano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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