10. Panics and Plagues

Panic

In ancient Greek mythology, Pan was a mischievous and illusive creature of the forest who enjoyed tormenting wilderness travelers.  Pan would hide in the bushes and then suddenly shake them, thus frightening the passing traveler.  As the lonely traveler picked up his pace to escape the unknown danger, Pan would quickly move to the next hiding spot along the pathway and repeat his behavior.  As a traveler’s fright increased Pan became more amused.

No traveler who had once transited the Greek wilderness would re-enter it without a sense of foreboding.  The word “panic” evolved to mean a sudden uncontrollable fear, anxiety or even terror.

The Locus of Panics

Dazed, confused, and in a fragile emotional and physical state, those who survived in the strike zones were desperate.  Panic could be triggered by something as simple as an off-handed comment.  Near riots would break out if a rumor spread that supplies and support were suddenly exhausted or unavailable.  While neighbors responded by helping neighbors, individuals in most cases were left to their own devices.

People outside the strike zones acted much like people in Los Angeles did when New York City and Washington were attacked on 9/11 by Islamic terrorists.  They were shocked and concerned, and thankful that they were not in the line of fire.  The churches organized massive charitable drives.  Armies of American citizens, reminiscent of the Crusades, formed lifelines that stretched almost unbroken from the East and West coast to the heartland.  The outpouring of needed goods and services was the greatest in recorded history.

The logistics of charity were more than daunting.  Travel routes were severed.  Communications were spotty at best.  Safety and security could not be guaranteed.  Government was often of little help, and in some cases resistant to help that differed from what was considered “lawful and normal”.  Nevertheless, in the spirit of the great migrations that settled America, the people who were least affected did what was right and overcame obstacle after obstacle.

Refugees

For weeks, and in some cases months, people walked out of the areas of devastation.  Remarkably, some had been in the clutches of the tsunami yet managed to find a secure spot with sufficient breathable air, good quality water, and food.

When survivors took their first tentative steps toward safety, they found that everything was flattened, gone – reorganized in some crazy quilt pattern.  The disaster left nothing recognizable.  How these most distressed of people found their way was beyond human comprehension.  Their stories of survival were mesmerizing.

But there were more than just refugees from the tsunami.  People came from the dust bowls, the firestorms, and the earthquake ravaged areas.  They came from the farmlands and plains, from east of the Appalachian mountain chain to the Midwestern towns and cities, and invariably from the Deep South. They were uncertain about where to go but knowing that any place else at least held the promise of something better.

The Gulf disaster not only destroyed lives and property, but civil society for a thousand miles.  A town of a few hundred suddenly became a way station for a hundred thousand.  Sparsely inhabited farmlands became mass camps.  Crops were so thoroughly annihilated that it looked like a swarm of locusts had been at work.

Tens of millions had died in the tsunami and a hundred million more had been displaced.  America now had at least a third of its population on the move and at risk.

Breakdown of Civil Order

Civilization involves the creation of efficient government, communications, transportation, energy, food production and distribution, finances, healthcare, recreation and, ultimately, security.  However, civilization is but a veneer that quickly breaks down under extreme stress.

In the population centers and the new heartland frontier, roving bands of criminals and thugs took everything perceived to be of value, vandalized what they wished, and committed horrific acts of rape, robbery and murder.  The result of disarming citizens and relying on a thin blue line of police was that gangs were able to take control of many smaller cities.  The buildings and pitch-black streets became the playground of the macabre.

The most significant long-term disaster problems were ones of scale.  The cities had the largest populations and the most complex social networks.  Suddenly, there was no water in the pipes.  No electricity in the lines.  No food in the stores.  No sanitation services.  No reliable communications or transportation.  No emergency services.  No police and fire.  Literally thousands of things previously taken for granted were now gone.  Essentially, modern cities, with their dense concentrations of buildings and populations, suddenly became dangerous relics of the past.

In certain key cities, martial law was declared and enforced by the military.  This was particularly the case where military bases were in close proximity to a major population center.  Cities like Washington, DC, the Capitol of America, received special attention, but it was impossible to militarily police the entire nation.  Essentially, the east and west coast corridors were protected.  Everything else was triaged, and large sections of the country were abandoned out of necessity.

Armed Camps

Obviously something had to be done.  With the government paralyzed and no longer in control of major parts of the country, and criminals everywhere, individuals armed themselves and began to create rubble-based versions of ancient forts and castles.

“Frontier” justice was applied without mercy.  Since there were no prisons; murder, theft and a violation of the Ten Commandments were a hanging offense – and the sentence was carried out immediately.

Strangers and unfamiliar groups of people were seldom treated well.  As was the case with Europe during the height of the “Black Death”, many strangers were attacked and killed outright.  Uncertainty was everywhere.  Trust was not a luxury that could be afforded if the opportunity to survive was to be preserved.

Since food, water and supplies were important, armed foraging teams would be dispatched to scour the area for what was needed.  A grocery store smashed and unrecognizable under a pile of rubble might suddenly provide a much needed stash of food or something of use.  However, every forage expedition was a risk, and any encounter almost certain to be deadly.

The saving grace came from the religious leadership.  Once forced into the background of society by political correctness, they emerged as the steadying hand of conscience.  As with the case of the miraculous survival of the New Orleans sisters, priests, and ministers became the conduit for the many large and small miracles needed to keep distraught people thinking and acting in a positive manner.  Where prayers were said, society tended to flourish.  Where they were not said, the bad lands of barbarism returned with a vengeance.

The Impact on Medical Care

What was initially unknown was the totality of the destruction of the medical establishment along the Gulf Coast and along the Mississippi.  As information and rumors poured in, an ugly picture emerged.

Hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices had been destroyed.  Medicines were scattered everywhere – most were missing labels while others had been damaged and rendered unusable.  Those medicines that had been spared and were recognizable were put to immediate use.  Antibiotics were in such scarce supply that a normal 10 day course for the worst injured was reduced to a single dosage.  The hope was that somehow more doses would arrive via the gigantic charitable lifeline.  If such was not the case, then a single dose at least improved the chances of survival in a fight for life.

The doctors and nurses were as affected by the destruction as was the normal population, and probably more so because they went into harms way to provide aid.  By estimates, eight out of ten healthcare providers had been killed outright, and the remainder were working and operating with injuries and illnesses that reduced their effectiveness.

The laboratories and lab technicians were useless in all of this.  The doctors simply had to make life and death decisions based on what they suspected or could do.  The most fortunate patients got doctors who had war zone experiences and were used to making quick and decisive actions.

Joe remembered the vivid images of hospitals near Pearl Harbor after the Japanese sneak attack that led to World War II in the Pacific.  The hospitals were overwhelmed with the injured and dying.  The chaos had to be managed. Nurses were sent outside the entrances of medical facilities to decide who could be saved, who would die, and who were already dead.  Armed military personnel were assigned to hospitals to prevent panicked crowds from entering and demanding medical help from a staff already overwhelmed by the diversity of medical demands and needs.

The concept of triage had evolved over time.  In WW I, it meant grouping the injured and dying at a central collection point.  By WW II, triage meant initial treatment and assessment by field medics before transport to a field hospital or other medical facility.  Later wars involved air transport and life stabilization.  Lucky were the fortunate few survivors who weren’t subject to WW I levels of triage.

The Plague

The Bubonic plague was one of mankind’s greatest enemies.  The Byzantine Empire was the to first record plague illness in the sixth century.

Then came the Black Death.  Spread by rat infested fleas, it killed by the tens of thousands as it spread from China through the trade routes to Europe.  Upwards of half the malnourished population of fourteenth century Europe subsequently died of the Plague.  Later, and fortunately lesser outbreaks of plague, happened in Spain, England and Austria.

The last great pandemic of plague started in the mid 19th century and ended in the early 20th century.  It killed millions in China and India before spreading around the world.

Joe knew that a children’s game he had played in elementary school had a sinister side.  “Ring around the Rosy.  Pocket full of posy.  Ashes, ashes.  We all fall down.”  The ring was the sign of plague.  Fragrant flower petals were presumed to ward off the evil vapors.  Ashes were what were left after the bodies of victims were burned – assuming, of course, they were burned and not left abandoned to rot in houses and streets.  Falling down was how quickly and virulently the disease killed.

Companions of the Plague

Joe was suddenly reminded of an old saying intended to bring luck to a new bride.  “Something old.  Something new.  Something borrowed.  Something blue.”  As much as it applied to a bride so it did to the rise of post tsunami disease.

The bubonic plague, along with cholera and typhoid, were something old, the bane of mankind for millennia.   But there were also new diseases that resulted from the over use of penicillin and advanced antibiotics.  Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, first discovered in the United Kingdom in 1961, was a virulent, deadly and difficult to treat bacterial infection that haunted hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, schools, gyms, illegal drug users and anyone with a weakened immune system.  Thus something old and new in the disease world was destined to ravage the refugee population.

But diseases were not just the bane of human beings.  Crop failures revealed an explosion of food blights. A highly contagious fungus that destroyed tomato plants spread North and East from the ravaged areas around the Mississippi River.  From the mid-Atlantic to Maine, the blight destroyed tomato crops.   Ominously, a strain of the blight that caused the Irish potato famine appeared.

Corn was also affected.  Water saturated soils in what was left of the Midwest farmlands encouraged the growth of Pythium, Fusarium, Diplodia, Rhizoctonia and Penicillium.  Seed decay, seedling blight and crown decay spread rapidly, thus destroying the reliability of corn as a stable crop.

Wheat and soybean crops had their own problems from evolved forms of ancient fungi.  The situation was so severe that the dire predictions of societal upheaval in the large cities became a reality.

Rice was the final nail in the crop failure coffin.  As one of the staples of the world food supply, rice was on virtually every breakfast, lunch or dinner table at some point during the week.  Yet bacterial rice blights were common and uncontrollable by chemical methods or quarantines.

But disease was not finished tormenting mankind.  Hoof and Mouth disease arose to affect cattle.  The boll weevil somehow returned to inflict major damage on what was left of the cotton crop.  Fruit flies, seemingly eradicated by genetic and sexual manipulation, once again savaged whatever citrus survived the tsunami’s surge into Florida.

Call of the Wild

Without the restraints of civilization to contain them, insect hordes, wild herds, and ancient predators began to spread.

Swarms of grasshoppers descended out of the sky blotting out the sun.  So numerous were the numbers that thousands of square miles and many different kinds of food crops were destroyed.  Joe noted that such “locust” swarms, containing tens of billions of grasshoppers were a well known problem in the Western half of the United State and Africa.  Such swarms had caused regional economic depressions, famine and major damaged to land denuded of foliage.

Mankind had grown accustomed to dealing with insect ravages through the use of pesticides or insect specific diseases and predators.  All of this, however, required a working set of highly specialized industries, and many of them had been destroyed or severely damaged by the Gulf disaster.

Insects were but one part of the problem.  Large herds of deer, unchecked by civilization, chewed up crops and encouraged the return of predators.  Wolves, hunted to near extinction in the United States, began to breed and move south to better hunting grounds.  Unlike the warm and fuzzy stories of wolves as companions, people found that wolf packs attacked anything and anyone displaying weakness – and children disappeared if they wandered away into the surrounding brush or forests.

Joe remembered one of the more infamous stories of wolf attacks. The Beast of Gevaudan created absolute havoc in France in the 1760s.  From eyewitness accounts, the Beast was a wolfish creature the size of a cow.  It had an extremely wide chest, a lion like tail and a slim head with protruding fangs.  Its jaws were so large as to be able to crush a human skull.  It was seen to be extremely powerful with measurements showing leaps of as much as thirty feet in a single bound.  The Beast had a particular taste for human flesh, and is credited with killing over one hundred men, women and children.

The murderous rampages of the Beast became so dire that King Louis XV commissioned France’s best wolf hunters in an attempt to track it down.  When they failed, he sent his own chief huntsman to find this mystical animal that was now stalking the psyche of all French people.  Eventually a large wolf, almost three feet in height and six feet in length was killed.  To sooth the concerns and fears of the French citizenry, it was stuffed and transported around the country for all to see.  The chief huntsman was greeted as a hero and given large sums of money, land, titles and various awards from the crown.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong wolf.  The Beast again attacked, injuring and killing over a dozen people.  Finally, a local hunter, Jean Chastel, accidentally stumbled upon the Beast and killed it, thus ending the attacks.

The wolves, of course, were joined in their predation by mountain lions and bears.  The coyote, an opportunistic stealth hunter, freely roamed every state in the continental United States.  The wild dog population literally exploded.  Packs of vicious and untamed dogs became a constant source of trouble and a real threat to human life.

The feral cat population increased as well.  The cats were useful because they hunted disease carrying mice and rats.  Joe remembered the dark ages when cats were killed because they were considered the evil companions of witches and satanic cults.  Quite a change as the post tsunami cat was at least given its due as a protector of the food storehouse.   However, a cat scratch or bite often meant serious trouble as opportunistic diseases flourished where hygiene was sacrificed to other human survival necessities.

The Road To Civilization

The endeavors of science had been focused on demystifying life on earth and throughout the universe.  Astronomers studied the skies and suggested that other planets, maybe even millions of them, had produced life and possibly superior intelligence.  Geologists and archeologists looked at prehistoric earth and found examples of prior cataclysmic events. The earliest discoveries of human skeletons revealed that the father of all man had come from the plains of Africa where competition between predator and prey was at its most extreme.

Mankind had apparently developed from a species living at the margins of life to the most important living creature on the planet.  This transition had involved the steady yet ever quickening process of challenging and then controlling other life on earth.  The domestication of animals, and their use for food, transportation, security and comfort was a key step in the evolution of civilization.

The control of both dangerous and injurious animals and other pests was absolutely necessary.  Questions of which were more dangerous or injurious, the lion, the rat or the mosquito, depended on which century of human progress was being analyzed.

In a final brilliant conquest of science, much of disease yielded to the biology of antibiotics or the creation of beneficial microbes.  The ultimate challenge was to protect a man’s life from the ravages of his own genetics.  However, the advance of science and therefore mankind was now in question.

The Solace of a Merciful God

Man is not ruled by reason alone.  Without belief, life is a sterile and mechanistic existence. Hope for the future makes life bearable – from the moment of birth to the moment before death.  Mankind needs a sense of something greater than himself, and that greatness does not lie in finite materialism or power over others.

When the government begins to fail the people, and panic sets in, who provides the guidance and the strength to persist?  Self-sufficiency is not built by the enslavement of a welfare state.  No scientific arguments can convince the American people that reason is sufficient in and of itself.

Religion, so often derided by the secular progressive, was the only thing that could provide hope in the face of devastation.  Thanks to religion, each individual, regardless of his or her situation and station in life, wasacknowledged to have a unique relationship with God and a specific responsibility for their time on Earth.

Sadly, many religious leaders had great difficulty making the transition from a figure of ridicule to an honored guide.  Silenced for decades, many preferred to remain passive.  It was a new breed of preacher, willing to challenge the ignorance and overbearing behavior of the American government that had arrived on the scene to provide comfort and leadership.

A single historically devastating event, anticipated in science and fiction, was a test of the future of mankind.  And there were no certain answers.


About Robert Warren

Research, Development and Engineering Consultant; Marine Accident Investigator; Author and Lecturer; CEO of Expertise, Inc.; Doctorate
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One Response to 10. Panics and Plagues

  1. Robert Warren says:

    Fine. Would be happy to have a guest blogger

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