When thinking in terms of national security, what most commonly comes to mind are images of such things as military invasions, planes crashing into buildings, suicide bombers walking into busy cafes, infectious computer viruses, or crashing stock markets. All of these things are of great national security concern, but they are not the only threats. Often underestimated and overshadowed by the horrors of man-made threats, natural threats pose just as must of a problem to our national security.
Consider natural disasters; for example, Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it would be difficult to argue that dealing with natural disasters is something we have mastered yet. Even today, five years after she ripped through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the wounds left by Katrina are still sore. After all, Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes to hit the United States in this century, killing almost 2,000 people directly. Katrina interrupted the US economy greatly, cutting short oil supply lines, crippling large parts of Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s infrastructure causing import and export delays, destroying many homes, businesses, and other structures, especially in New Orleans. The entire economic impact of Katrina in just Louisiana and Mississippi is estimated at $150 billion. The destruction of property and livelihoods caused massive migration effects in the region, with unaffected areas forced to accommodate over one million refugees. This not only burdened surrounding areas, but it left a void in the affected areas in the form of a lack of economic activity or citizens to pay taxes necessary for resetting the state economies. Katrina’s destruction also placed a burden on the entire rest of the country, as nearly $100 billion in economic aid has been provided by the federal government for disaster relief and rebuilding. In addition, land erosion, oil spills, destruction of wildlife habitats, and other environmental effects resulted from Katrina. And let’s not forget about the violence and horrendous living conditions that many survivors of Katrina, stranded in New Orleans, had to endure during the aftermath. Hurricane Katrina offers the perfect example of how nature should not be underestimated, how we will have to prepare for sobering reminders of the fact that we are not as “in charge” as we think we are, even on our own soil.
Another kind of natural phenomenon that threatens our sense of national security is disease and illness. From infectious diseases to influenza to the common cold, disease and illness are dangerous to those affected and have the potential to greatly endanger national interests and flow of activity and commerce. For example, recent outbreaks of cholera in Haiti have had devastating effects on an already suffering population. This outbreak has been traced to foreigners entering Haiti from somewhere in South Asia, as the particular strand of cholera is usually only found there. So far, the cholera epidemic has killed nearly 2400 Haitians, with Haiti having only about 9 million inhabitants. This would be equivalent to 80,000 Americans dying out of our population of 300 million. Infectious diseases do not truly have borders. Wherever there is a flow of people, there is potential for new breeding grounds for diseases to spread. This is why disease monitoring and control are incredibly important to national security. In the United States in recent years, we have worried about Influenza A, or H1N1, also known as “swine flu.” Not only did this new strand of flu pose a threat to the health of our population, but it also caused widespread hysteria and panic, which can also be dangerous. Along with H1N1, even the “common cold,” considered more annoying than dangerous, can cause harm. Illness within a population means a compromised work force and a lag in economic activity, an obvious security concern.
The main point here is that national security does not just involve defense against the devious scheming of malevolent men. National security defense encompasses all threats to a nation’s welfare. This is not to say that man-made threats are not dangerous. It is a difficult practice to monitor and prevent terrorist activity or to maneuver through the trials of failing economies, but it is just as difficult to foresee natural threats or to prevent, contain, or recover from them. While we can always try to put ourselves in other men’s shoes and try to predict their behavior, we will never “think” like unpredictable Mother Nature, therefore she will always have the upper hand. All we can do is remain mindful of the security threat that natural crises and happenings pose.