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When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans it was one of the worst natural disasters in modern US history. At least 1,200 people – maybe as high as 1,800 – died across the southeastern USA, and property damage totaled more than $108 billion dollars.

One reason the death toll was so high is that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, made a real mess of their response. The agency’s director was one of the most high-profile officials who resigned in the aftermath of Katrina. Since then FEMA has supposedly cleaned its act up and should be able to respond effectively to any future disasters. But what does that mean for you?

In theory at least, if there’s an isolated disaster in one part of the USA – something like another hurricane – FEMA should be able to respond effectively. Their response would probably include pre-disaster programs, like evacuation plans or setting up temporary shelters for anyone who’s left homeless. Once a disaster has happened they can coordinate emergency search and rescue, medical and support teams. They can bring in federal resources and also work with state agencies to make sure help is going where it’s needed.

What if it’s a national disaster, though? Another of FEMA’s functions is to help stabilize the USA after a catastrophe that affects the whole country. That could be a freak climate event, an EMP or anything else all the way up to a major nuclear attack. Can FEMA rescue people, give them medical treatment and find them housing on a national scale?

On paper at least, the answer is yes. After all, they can call on a lot of federal resources. But even then, they’re not going to be able to help the whole country at once. They’ll be prioritizing some areas, doing what they can there then moving on to somewhere else.

The first priority for FEMA is going to be big cities, with Washington, D.C. probably at the top of the list. Prioritizing D.C. looks a lot like self-interest, but in this case it probably isn’t. In a really major disaster the leaders of the government will have evacuated anyway, and they’ll be working from emergency bunkers. Getting the capital sorted out will let the rest of the government start rebuilding itself, though, and even if most of us usually wish the government would leave us alone, it’s going to be important if the entire USA needs rebuilt.

Once D.C. is under control the next priority will be the big three urban areas – New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. There are a couple of reasons for this and the first one is simple; there are lots of people there and they’re going to be in a bad way. Even the power going out for a couple of days will reduce a big city to chaos; an EMP, or an actual nuclear strike, would leave millions of people helpless and unable to survive for long on their own.

Cities are fragile, especially when things go seriously wrong. Without urgent rescue operations they’d quickly collapse into anarchy as people fought for the limited resources available. Unburied corpses and contaminated water would spark epidemics. Fires burning out of control would cause death and destruction on a huge scale. If a Russian SS-25 ICBN detonated above Manhattan Island it would kill about 1.5 million New Yorkers in less than a minute. That’s bad enough, but without an immediate and massive FEMA response at least another four million, including almost all the three million injured by the blast, would be dead within a couple of weeks. They’d just starve, dehydrate, burn, or get sick and die.

Another reason to prioritize the cities is that bringing them under control will help get the government running again and make a start at rebuilding the economy. A major national catastrophe or attack would cause huge damage to the USA, but if the cities can be stabilized the country can rebuild a lot more quickly.

Here are the likely priorities:

  1. Washington, D.C. – Government
  2. New York City – Largest US population center
  3. Los Angeles – Second largest population center
  4. Chicago – Major population center, finance, manufacturing
  5. Houston – Major population center, oil industry
  6. Dallas – Population center, oil industry
  7. Philadelphia – Population center, manufacturing, oil refining
  8. San Diego – Population center, military
  9. Phoenix – Population center, food processing
  10. San Francisco – Tech industries

Small towns aren’t anywhere near as vulnerable as a big city is. Losing the power would be bad, but not disastrous – the infrastructure’s usually simpler and not as automated. The population is less dense, which reduces the risk of disease, and it’s generally easier to get food and water. In a nuclear war small towns are also a lot less likely to be damaged by the strike, unless they’re near a strategic target. They’ll certainly suffer in the aftermath, but nowhere near as badly as the cities will, so in general they’re going to be a much lower priority for rescue efforts.

There are some exceptions to this, of course. Food supplies are going to be very important; millions of refugees from the cities will need to be fed, and the normal distribution networks will have collapsed. Expect areas that grow staples, like wheat and root vegetables, to be a lot higher up the list. Any town with major food-processing industries is also going to be a priority, and so are transport hubs. Unless these places get restored to normal as fast as possible, all other efforts are basically pointless. Even if FEMA saves the survivors from the major cities, they’ll all starve to death when winter hits. So, if you have a big food-canning plant down the road, expect rescue services to be on the scene very soon after the disaster. The government will want to get life back to something near enough normal that people are willing to go back to work.

On the other hand, if you live in a rural area and the big local crops are tobacco, cotton or anything else that can’t be shipped to the cities and eaten, you’re going to be on your own for a while. Part of that is hard-headed realism from the government; your area isn’t critical to rebuilding the nation and there aren’t all that many people in it, so you’re going to have to wait. Then again, another big part of it is sort of a compliment – the government know that people in rural areas won’t need help all that urgently. If you’re already pretty self-reliant you’re better placed to get through a crisis. You probably grow some of your own food, you know how to hunt and you might even have your own water supply and generator; you can take care of yourself for a while and let the feds get on with rescuing the city folk.

The exact details of what’s happened will affect these priorities, but in general they’re pretty reliable: The first targets for federal resources will be the big cities, especially on the coasts, and anywhere that produces vital resources. That will be followed by places that have other important industries, then smaller towns, with rural areas at the back of the line. In other words, the same way the government always sets its priorities.

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