Like many of my fellow Texans, I was shocked when Senator Ted Cruz was recently spotted not wearing a mask on a flight from Dallas to Houston as COVID-19 cases were spiking across the state. Pandemic petulance is pretty on brand for the junior senator, but his latest fit of obstinacy comes at a particularly dangerous time: hurricane season.
This is a personal issue for me. Up until my recent retirement from the Army, I served as a COVID-19 crisis planner at NORTHCOM in Colorado Springs. I was part of the team managing this crisis since January, when we first started evacuating U.S. citizens out of China. Further, my active duty military career was bifurcated by a stint in the Army Reserves. During that time, I worked in Emergency Management at the state and local level in Texas. I was in the Texas Emergency Operations Center on Sept. 11, and I’ve worked disasters all over, including several hurricanes.
And a hurricane in the middle of a pandemic was very much on our minds at NORTHCOM. We started calling it the COVICANE. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling for an above-average Atlantic Hurricane Season this year with a possibility of 19 named storms. We based some of our planning off Hurricane Harvey, which struck Cruz’s hometown of Houston in 2017. Typically, the National Guard and some active duty forces respond to hurricanes to provide things like search and rescue, engineering, and medical support. Rooftop helicopter rescues make for dramatic footage, but the truth is that the military does not do the bulk of the work. Instead, volunteer organizations like the Red Cross lead the effort by managing shelters, feeding the hungry, and processing displaced families. My team looked at how COVID-19 might impact volunteers. What we found was scary.
Foremost, most members of these volunteer organizations are over 60 years old, putting them into the high-risk category for COVID-19. According to the American Red Cross, of their 21,000 trained disaster responders, 42 percent are over the age of 65, 43 percent are between 40-64; and just 13 percent are between 18 and 39. This means the people we need most in a disaster are also among the most vulnerable. The Red Cross says that it has procured PPE for its disaster workers, but we found that other volunteer organizations, given the already nationwide shortage, might not have enough. Everywhere we looked we found data indicating if we failed to flatten the curve, we would be risking the volunteer infrastructure so vital to hurricane response and recovery. It gets worse.
If volunteers aren’t available or if they get sick, the hard work of disaster response would fall on to the only other available pool of manpower: the military. This is problematic in its own way. If a COVICANE response stretches a state National Guard to the breaking point, active duty forces could be deployed to help. The Army only keeps a few active units on standby for what is known as the Defense Support to Civil Authorities mission. In a pinch, untrained active-duty forces could fill the gap and do their best. But the real problems would come after their exposure to the virus in the disaster zone.
There are only a finite number of military medical personnel to go around, and many of them from places like Fort Carson, Colorado, are already deployed for COVID-19. And even if medical units were available, there is a good chance they would be exposed to the virus and bring it back home to find the doctors who normally work in the clinics and hospitals are gone. Worse, soldiers bringing the virus back home could cause spikes in areas like Colorado that are doing better at containing it. Our hope was we would avoid the worst case COVICANE scenario by flattening the curve this spring. Yet here we are, which brings me back to Senator Cruz.
Cruz’s fateful flight came after a political rally in Granbury, Texas, for a Texas House of Representatives candidate named Jon Francis. (A spokesperson, for what it’s worth, claimed that Cruz only pulled down his mask to sip his coffee.) Pictures and video from the rally at an indoor venue called La Bella Luna show only a handful of masks in sight. La Bella Luna, Senator Cruz’s office, and the Jon Francis campaign all did not respond to my inquiries to clarify mask use at the event.
What is clear is that Granbury and surrounding Hood County have not been spared from COVID-19. As of Friday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, Hood County had 223 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with five confirmed fatalities. A representative from the only hospital in Hood County told me that they didn’t have their own “brick and mortar” health department, so all their testing had to be sent north into the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, which is already experiencing its own surge in cases. So, poor social distancing practices at political rallies could hurt an already strained system.
Granbury is 280 miles from Houston, but hurricanes don’t happen in a coastal vacuum. People and patients need to be evacuated inland. Patients needing COVID-19 ICU beds from a hurricane evacuation zone might have nowhere to go. Unchecked community spread could mean volunteer workers might get infected as they do their work, or worse, bring it with them to a shelter or feeding line. And this is just a bad scenario for Texas. The same botched management of the pandemic is happening in Georgia and Florida, with potential nationwide ripple effects if the worst COVICANE scenarios come to pass.
Of course, Senator Cruz knows this, but he doesn’t own the problem. He won’t be among the local, state, and federal officials making life-and-death decisions in the desperate hours before and after landfall. I’m sure he’ll offer his thoughts and prayers, but what he could do right now is lead by example, own up to his recent mistakes, and put on a damn mask.