It has been a year since the bird flu tore through the Midwest: enough time for decimated farms to cash their indemnity checks and begin buying replacement birds; for the wholesale price of eggs, which doubled, to slide back to normal; for national awareness of the outbreak, the worst animal-disease epidemic in United States history, to dissipate. But among the poultry farmers who endured the flu, and others watching elsewhere in the country, there is a pervasive uneasiness, because after a year of scrutiny, federal and academic scientists still cannot say for sure how their properties became infected. Despite their own efforts to harden their defenses, and new federal plans to help them, it is possible that poultry farmers are not equipped for the flu to return among the United States’ billions of chickens; and that ranchers and pork producers might be equally unprepared if an unfamiliar disease detonated among the country’s 92 million beef and dairy cattle or 68 million pigs. Planning for epidemics, animal or human, is to a large extent based on what a disease did the last time. It is much more difficult to predict what a disease will do next. ... Naturally occurring epidemics might be as dangerous as maliciously introduced ones; and diseases in plants and animals could undermine national security as seriously as human epidemics would. ... A study done in July estimated that the flu cost the United States $2.6 billion in lost sales, almost $400 million in forgone taxes and 15,693 jobs. But as devastating as the losses were to Iowa, Minnesota and other states, their 50 million turkeys and hens represented a small portion of the poultry industry. The largest concentrations of chickens in the United States — Georgia, which raises 1.3 billion broilers a year, and the Delmarva Peninsula, where the broiler business began in the 1920s — lie under another migration route that ducks take over the Americas. If the flu were to land in those areas and spread the way it did in the Midwest, much of the United States poultry industry would be in jeopardy: almost nine billion birds, 90 billion eggs, more than $40 billion in earnings, 1.3 million jobs.
This is the story of the first 15 years of how we have dealt with that newfound fear—how we have confronted, sometimes heroically and sometimes irrationally, the mechanics, the politics, and the psychic challenges of the September 12 era. ... Have we succeeded in toughening up what overnight became known as “homeland security”? Absolutely. But not without a series of extravagant boondoggles along the way. ... Are we safer? Yes, we’re safer from the kind of orchestrated attack that shocked us on that September morning. It’s harder for terrorists to get into the country, and harder for them to pull off something spectacular if they do. But we have not plugged some of the most threatening security gaps. Worse, as the Orlando massacre reminded us, the world has become more populated by those who want to exploit those gaps, including those living among us—and who, in the United States, can easily obtain military-grade weapons. They are not deterred by the prospect of their own death, and they are happy to commit acts less ambitious than those of 9/11. That makes their attacks much harder to detect in advance. Our defenses are far stronger, but what we have to defend against has outpaced our progress. ... Have we adjusted, politically and emotionally, so that we can make rational decisions as a government and as a people to deal with the ongoing threat? Not yet. In a bitterly divided democracy, where attention spans are short and civic engagement is low and the potential for oversimplification and governing-by-headlines is high, that is hardly a surprise.