DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Irwin Redlener Americans at Risk


Author (or Editor):  Irwin Redlener

Title:  Alone in the Trenches: Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters And What We Can Do Now

Fiction? No

Publisher:  Knopf


ISBN:  0-307-26526-9

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 271 pgs, indexed

Relevance to doaskdotell: citizenship, disaster preparedness, personal liberty


The author is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and is president of the Children’s Health Fund.

Remember, the History Channel has recently used the term “mega disasters” for its series on a number of horrific possibilities, like huge earthquakes, monster hurricanes (like Katrina), and tsunamis (a much greater danger, even on the East Coast, than a lot of people realize), as well as the obvious concern about terrorist attacks with WMD’s (Weapons of Mass Destruction)

The book is in four parts, and it rehearses some of the well known natural disaster (and terror) scenarios in some detail, with simulations (such as a monstrous earthquake in Seattle) in boldface font. The discusses bird flu (avian influenza) and points out that the greatest danger could come from biological combination of H5N1 with ordinary influenza – an argument for ordinary immunization as a critical public health measure. He criticizes the disorganization of our vaccine industry, and our lack of ability to protect manufacturers from contingent liability.

Redlener makes some specific points. For example, he discusses the possibility that terrorists would go after soft targets, and particularly play the “women and children” card (a bigger issue in Muslim and many other cultures) by attacking schools, as with a written simulation of an incident in Arizona, with terrorists who come in from Mexico. He mentions the attack on a school in Beslan, Russia. This is controversial. Many experts believe that Al Qaeda will continue to focus on visible symbols as marks, and are not so interested in ordinary people, although radical ideology seems to gloat in taking innocent civilian lives, using the typical revolutionary rhetoric that no one is “innocent” when there are tainted fruits. Would terrorists target ordinary outspoken citizens, or their families? This hasn’t really happened, although the threats against Salman Rushdie and the assassination of a Dutch filmmaker are frightening.

He also discusses the threat of nuclear detonations, a threat well articulated by Sam Nunn and others. Terrorists could use newer technology to assemble small nuclear weapons covertly. On the other hand, much of the recent media coverage about threats focuses on low tech threats used in unconventional ways, such as liquid explosives.

In the last part of the book Redlener discusses preparedness, and is critical of the quixotic and random nature of American preparations. A number of countries, including Britain, Sweden and, of course, Israel, have much more thoroughly thought out preparations. He discusses the role of volunteer organizations and NGOs (ranging from the Red Cross to Habitat for Humanity) in recovering from mega disasters. He feels that government must take the lead, as volunteer efforts cannot make a huge impact on the volume of need (as for replacement housing) after a mega disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Although I would think here that the willingness of many people to house total strangers (in a Biblical manner, almost) after the hurricane warranted attention, and this could have been elevated to the level of a morally compelling discussion.

Redlener discusses citizen preparedness, and indicates that even in World War II it was not taken as seriously by ordinary Americans as history typically indicates. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 presented probably the most dire threat of nuclear annihilation, but little was done to prepare Americans, and probably little could be done. Today’s threats of WMD’s are qualitatively different from the MAD (mutually assured destruction) doctrine of the Cold War, as they would be catastrophic in a limited list of specific cities (probably only one city at a time), but could produce even millions of casualties in one specific area.

At the end, Redlener gives his recommendations to “ordinary people.” The first is “stay healthy and fit,” but the last is the edgiest: “work on family resiliency.”  One problem, that he does not go into, is that many people are at odds with their biological families, although obviously his pointers would apply to same-sex couples as well. But there is a call for some degree of socialization from everyone.



Related: “disaster” films

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