Is America Prepared To Handle An Outbreak?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

Disasters have a way of waking people up to the reality of their situation in life. In Stephen King’s epic novel The Stand, a weaponized strand of the flu is accidentally released from a military base, and it decimates most of the world’s population. The story follows different groups of survivors trying to make sense of their new normal.

But what if the nightmare inside this fiction became a reality? What would happen if the president were faced with a not-so-fictional flu outbreak?

Presidential historian and author Tevi Troy’s new book is called Shall We Wake the President?: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office. But while most people focus on the title, it was a question I asked him about his subtitle—how presidents handle disaster—that evoked his most alarming story.

When I asked him about which department has jurisdiction to manage disasters, Troy (who worked in the George W. Bush administration) recalled this troubling memory:

I’m working on this flu plan in the Bush White House in the 2000s. And at one point, we are briefing Andy Card, who was the Chief of Staff, about this. And Fran Townsend, who was the Homeland Security Adviser, is leading the briefing. And she is telling Andy Card about all of these anti-virals we are buying and vaccines and everything. And she is flanked on one side by Mike Chertoff from Department of Homeland Security and on the other side by Mike Leavitt from [Health and Human Services]. And Andy Card interrupts her briefing, and says, “This is all great Fran, but if there is a flu outbreak, who should the president call?” And she looked at him and said, “Mike,”—again, surrounded by Mike Chertoff and Mike Leavitt, just showing the confusion.

I asked which Mike she meant. “They never resolved it,” Troy said.

“There was just a big laugh and we moved on.”

Listen to streaming audio of my full conversation with Tevi Troy here and download (and please rate and review) the podcast on iTunes