Man smiling and sitting on mountain

Preparing for the Worst


Managing catastrophes was all in a day’s work for Jonah Stinson ’00. Then COVID-19 came along.

“Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in ice,” begins the famous poem by Robert Frost. To that list, Jonah Stinson ’00 can add a few more possibilities.
A disaster management expert and regional response team leader in Washington state, Stinson has devoted his career to preparing governmental responses to “anything that rocks society, that’s out of the norm, and that we have to deal with,” he explains. In the past, that has meant earthquakes, landslides, floods, wildfires, hazardous material spills, terrorist attacks, and active shooters. But since February, it has meant just one thing: COVID-19.

Stinson, who grew up in Haydenville, Massachusetts, and was a day student at Williston for both middle and upper school, is director of safety and emergency management for the Bellingham Public Schools, a system 90 miles north of Seattle with 13,000 students across 30 sites. He is also an adjunct professor at Western Washington University, teaching disaster risk resiliency and physical geography—the study of processes in the natural environment, such as atmospheric and landscape forces, and their potential impact on society.

For those in the disaster preparedness profession, the COVID-19 pandemic is “a rare opportunity,” says Stinson, who when interviewed in April had been working with his team without a break since the virus appeared in February. “It’s the Super Bowl of disasters.” Both the global scale of the pandemic and its range of impacts—to public health, social services, the economy—make it an unrelenting test of whatever mitigation strategies the planners may have devised. As his team’s human services director, Stinson is focused on the challenge of providing necessities in this newly contagious world: organizing drive-throughs at food banks, assisting schools with meal distribution, setting up child care for essential workers, establishing safe shelters for the homeless, planning quarantine facilities, and preparing medical surge facilities for when hospitals reach their limit.

As stressful as that work has been, Stinson says that on a professional level it has also been instructive. “It’s been rewarding to be able to apply the skills and the lessons that we’ve learned in the past to a real-world scenario, one that has direct impacts to the communities,” he says, “and to see practices in action at a scale like this, that we’ve never seen before.” And for him as an educator, the pandemic has provided an unprecedented case study for the next generation of emergency managers. In his disaster-risk reduction course, taught virtually this spring, Stinson will be giving projects to his undergrad seniors that are directly related to the COVID-19 response. “Opportunities like that, where students are able to be engaged with such important projects, are very rare,” he observes.

Stinson discusses catastrophes with a calm deliberation, perhaps because he has seen his share. Over the years, he has assessed the hazards of landslides in Taiwan, desertification in Mongolia, earthquakes in Turkey, and Whirling Disease (a parasitic infection in salmon) in the Southwestern United States. He has responded to vehicle accidents that shut down the local interstate, to murder-suicides that shocked his school community, and, perhaps most notably, in 2014, to the Oso Landslide, in Northwest Washington, which killed 43 people and buried some 40 homes and buildings. “It was a saturated slope and basically the whole mountainside came down,” he recalls. “No one anticipated an event like that.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the most catastrophic event on Stinson’s mind was one that hasn’t occurred for centuries. Bellingham happens to be in the Cascadian Subduction Zone, a long-dormant earthquake and tsunami region brought to national attention by Kathryn Schulz’s award-winning 2016 New Yorker article “The Really Big One,” which vividly documented that the Pacific Northwest was overdue for a devastating seismic event. That article “definitely raised awareness for the average citizen,” Stinson recalls, “but folks here tend to have a more heightened awareness of those issues.”

And that’s a key to being prepared for any catastrophe, he says. In his line of work, “there is no such thing as a natural disaster, there are only natural hazards.” What transforms a hazard into a disaster is our lack of preparation and response to it. “Flooding is a great example,” he says. “It’s a natural process and we don’t want to necessarily prevent it. What we can do is learn how to live with these natural phenomena in a nondestructive way. We can’t prevent an earthquake, but we can prevent the disaster that will come if we don’t build and live accordingly.” The COVID-19 pandemic, he notes, has underscored this point. “I don’t believe many of us were prepared for a situation of this magnitude.”

Stinson’s entry into risk management began with an interest in the outdoors. A member of the Outdoor Club at Williston, he volunteered one summer in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park through the Student Conservation Association, which in turn got him thinking about studying the environment at a school in the West. After his Williston counselor steered him to the Thoreau Foundation, he received a $34,000 scholarship to pursue that goal, and went on to earn his B.A. in environmental studies and geology at Whitman College, followed by a master’s in geography at Western Washington University. Stinson’s time at Williston also shaped him as an educator. “I had faculty, like Doc Gow, who helped reinforce my appreciation for the sciences,” he says. “He was always running and jumping around, so enthusiastic about teaching. I try to emulate his teaching style. At 8 a.m., for a college course, it can be tricky.”

So what instruction would Professor Stinson offer the rest of us in this time of pandemic anxiety and uncertainty? For starters, take responsibility for your own situation. “We are all first responders,” he says. “Often there is a misperception that federal agencies like FEMA will swoop down and handle everything. But as we see with large-scale disasters, those entities are more designed for coordination and large-scale facilitation. At the end of the day, it comes down to local and household levels of readiness and preparedness, and individual actions.”

In that regard, Stinson has been encouraged by the community responses he has seen to the pandemic, the generosity of neighbors, the volunteering efforts. “We’re seeing a lot of altruistic behaviors,” he notes. “People do really come together and want to do good things for others.” He also sees the pandemic triggering positive changes to social institutions and lifestyle patterns. “It’s going to drive incredible innovation,” he says. “We are going to see telecommuting on the rise after this is done. We’re going to see new technologies that we’ve never been able to utilize to this extent. A lot of new efficiencies will come out of this in the end.”
Until then, however, there are still risks to manage. Stinson is particularly concerned that once the infection curve is flattened and we begin returning to a more normal state of social activities, disease flare-ups will return, “and how we respond to those will be vital.” He also notes the importance of managing the economic hardships of continued social distancing, should that be required as long as some models suggest—finding ways to keep food on tables, businesses in business, and families equipped with what they need to stay isolated. That’s his new challenge, he says: “Trying to mitigate the mitigation.”

A turn of phrase that Robert Frost might have appreciated.