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The future may still be unpredictable, but nowadays, disasters are not. We live in a time of constant, consistent catastrophe, where things more often go wrong than they go right. So why do we still fumble when disaster hits? Why are we always one step behind?
In The Devil Never Sleeps, Juliette Kayyem lays the groundwork for a new approach to dealing with disasters. Presenting the basic themes of crisis management, Kayyem amends the principles we rely on far too easily. Instead, she offers us a new framework to anticipate the “devil’s” inevitable return, highlighting the leadership deficiencies we need to overcome and the forward thinking we need to harness. It’s no longer about preventing a disaster from occurring, but learning how to use the tools at our disposal to minimize the consequences when it does.
Filled with personal anecdotes and real-life examples from natural disasters like the California wildfires to man-made ones like the Boeing 737 MAX crisis, The Devil Never Sleeps is a guide for governments, businesses, and individuals alike on how to alter our thinking so that we can develop effective strategies in the face of perpetual catastrophe.
The boys were restless. We all were. It was April 2020, and we had been home, isolated, sheltering for just over a month. They were learning, if it could be called that, remotely after their high school shut down a few weeks before. Their older sister had returned from college, displeased that her freshman year would end taking classes from her bedroom at home. We were all stuck in our house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although I, as their mother, might occasionally admit it was special to hold them captive again, they found no such benefits in the situation. As far as the pandemic went, though, we were lucky. Our complaints derived from inconvenience, not wrenching sorrow.
Built in 1840, our rambling and cranky house took a bit of a beating with three teenagers back inside all day, every day. We had spent years tugging it into the modern era, but its bones were still old. It held up well enough for its age—until a fan broke.
In the boys’ second-floor bathroom, the ceiling covers what we had believed was a small crawl space. Above, on the third floor, is my daughter’s bedroom and a guest bedroom, with storage closets built in nooks and crevices around a slanted ceiling. Behind the closets, an architect had told us, were small crawl spaces that we could ignore, as they had been closed off for so long. So we had lived for a decade not really knowing what was behind those third-floor back walls that hid the space above the second-floor bathroom ceiling.
In April, the boys’ bathroom ceiling fan stopped working. They didn’t tell me. They said they forgot. Instead, as kids will do, they continued to take long, hot showers, oblivious to what the lack of ventilation was doing to the plaster. I would later wonder, Did they not notice the paint chipping? The ceiling plaster eventually fell in a big clump, exposing the crawl space above on the third floor. But it was much more than that. A long, narrow space, only about four feet high, was discovered. Our masked handyman set a ladder and hauled himself up. There was nothing in there; no animals or furniture, no treasure. We found just a single mottled photo.
The photo captured a distinguished-looking man leaning on a railing, a red-tinted drape and chair behind him. There were a few words on the back, a name, a date. I was fascinated and very curious. Who was this man? I took the mystery to Twitter, where I knew online genealogists lurked. Surely someone would know what to do with this. Twitter delivered by the hundreds. There was a lot of speculation about the print, the card stock, and the tinting. In about an hour, Twitter sleuths found out where I lived (it’s that easy?) through property searches and worked backward from newspaper stories and historical documents. The photo was of a relative of the McCue family, who had lived in my home, their home, from 1917 to 1919.1
I should probably admit here that my immediate obsession with this search was also a consequence of the pandemic’s manipulation of our time, of the concept of time. I, too, was home, distracted, not really myself, though busier than I had ever been. I no longer traveled; an airport fixture, I would not get on a plane for eighteen months. Still, I was not idle in 2020. My career in disaster and crisis management, preparing public and private entities for what they least expected, was in demand. Whether in academia, government, media, or the private sector, I like to say I have had many jobs but one career. I am like a storm chaser—but for disasters in general. I have a reputation for remaining calm when others do not, and my mantra has always been to “pace the rage.” I have low blood pressure, literally and figuratively.
Photo of a McCue family member, found in the author’s home.
This profession has led me to places around the globe, many of which have recently experienced a wrenching, often seemingly unfathomable catastrophe. One such place was the small town of Joplin in Missouri. That is where the title of this book first came into view. There I met with Jane Cage, a widow. When a tornado killed more than one hundred of her neighbors and friends as it raged up Nineteenth Avenue in the midsize God-fearing town in 2011, she found herself at a crossroads. I met Jane when I visited Joplin a year later, the sort of anniversary event that we do to memorialize those we lost and celebrate how far we have come. The event was emotionally strange, unsure of itself: Was it a party or a funeral? Was it gross or nice that the lead “hurricane hunter” from the Weather Channel was there signing autographs?
I met a mother worried that high school classes were still in trailers and anxious for the new facility to be ready. I talked with a father who spoke of house renovations without mentioning why he had so many rebuilding projects. There was a couple who had just moved to Joplin, recruits for the hospital, who were curious: they did not know what the town had been like before. Jane Cage did. And she hadn’t loved everything about the place she called home. The traffic was heavy and squeezed out pedestrians and bikers, there was racial segregation across train tracks, and the town had few public spaces. Joplin was not a perfect place. When the tornado struck, too many people died because systems weren’t working, alert warnings were delayed, and the community was not informed of what to do fast enough. For that year and the years after, Jane Cage led an effort to make Joplin better and ready for the next disaster.
Her determination was infectious. Maybe it was her faith, a belief in something bigger. But I came to think that was a simplistic, maybe even condescending explanation. Hers was a faith grounded in something quite tactical, operational, realistic. She wasn’t praying for deliverance or that Joplin would be spared when she knew that it would not be. There would be more tornadoes. She had no delusions but was still optimistic. She told me her guiding principle:
“The devil never sleeps. But he only wins if we don’t do better next time.”2
In the years since then, I have come to believe it. Surely, we all know this now. Disasters and crises are not one-offs, random events, rare occurrences; they are standard operating procedure. I say this to be liberating, not dispiriting. Disasters are simply no longer random and rare. And once we can all accept this lived reality—that the devil never sleeps—then we can better prepare for when the next one comes because it will come, as will all the ones after that. So much of our discourse about disasters focuses on the past and why we didn’t prevent them or on the future and how to stop them from happening again. But we live in an age of disasters. They are here, and they are not going away. There will be tragedies, but they will be tragedies made less tragic if we commit to sustained preparedness to minimize their consequences. And so I taught and wrote and traveled the world in the hopes that we might also see opportunities from events we never asked for.
And then, in 2020, everything stopped. And I was home in the rambling, cranky house whose history was about to be discovered when the bathroom ceiling fell.
We did know something about our house, but not about the McCues. Previous owners in the 1920s had served dinners here and advertised with local publications: “REAL HOME-COOKED FOOD: Daintily Prepared, Properly Cooked and Served, try Elizabeth’s Home Dining Room.” A blowup of this advertisement is now a framed poster in my kitchen, an inside joke with a family that tends not to eat “daintily.”3 The McCues were the owners immediately before Elizabeth’s meals were served.
The Twitter hunt continued for hours, complete strangers sending me information through the platform about the mystery of my walls. Charles McCue, a salesman, had been very involved with the local high school, then called Rindge High School, and served on the school committee. Rindge is now Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, one of the oldest public high schools in the US. My kids were enrolled there, coincidentally. Annie McCue was born Annie Davies, and her parents lived down the street. Annie and Charles had two children. A son, born in 1900, died in 1902 from spinal meningitis. They also had a daughter. Charles died in 1935, his obituary describing him as a “valiant spirit.”4
It seemed like a great find, but before I went to bed that night, I learned that Charles and Annie’s daughter, Elizabeth Letitia, also attended Rindge High School. Known only as “Jack” to her father, Letitia was his frequent companion to Elks Lodge meetings and on sales trips west. Letitia, it seemed, was her father’s life. A Twitter friend found a picture of her in the school newspaper.
Elizabeth Letitia McCue, given to the author from Sarah Leslee on Twitter.
I fell asleep thinking of this turn in events in which a basic water leak led to this early twentieth-century family. The following morning, I woke up to something sad, even disturbing. The Twitter genealogists had discovered more. Letitia died in our home in the early days of January 1919 at the age of nineteen. Her small funeral was also held here, as the newspapers reported, with influential political and academic leaders sending their prayers. Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, who would later become president, “was one of the first to send his sympathy.”5 The family moved out soon after.
Then I was sent her death certificate.6 Letitia died in the third of four waves during the Great Influenza epidemic, often known by a misnomer, the Spanish flu. That pandemic lasted from February 1918 to April 1920 and would infect about a third of the world’s population at the time—about five hundred million people—before it ended. The death toll is uncertain, but estimates put it between twenty and fifty million. Letitia’s death certificate describes her cause of death: “Influenza.” One hundred and one years later, as we waited out another pandemic, we were living where she had died from the last one.
At that time, homes were built with infirmary rooms that, ironically, were often used for both bringing in life during a home birth and easing toward death for the sick or old. They were isolated from the main area for privacy and to protect the healthy. In my home, that space was on the third floor, eventually hidden behind the back wall of a closet. Letitia entered it when she caught the flu. She never left it alive. When she died, they built the wall. A picture was left behind.
Annie, Letitia’s mother, died a widow in Cambridge in 1962. She had lost a son to a childhood illness and a daughter to the last great pandemic. Later during that week of discovery, a family member of the McCues, who had been forwarded the Twitter thread, contacted me. She told me more about the family. I immediately mailed the picture of the distinguished man, likely Annie’s father, that we found in the crawl space. It was hers.
I was distracted and amazed by all of it. If you believe in karma, you might find it here. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. There was the irony of a modern family, stuck at home during this pandemic, finding a picture of another family who suffered during the last one. Or the coincidence of my work as a disaster and homeland security expert, so much of it being about the 2020 pandemic, ricocheting back to the walls that confined and protected us at home. Or the reminder of the known progression of pandemics—Letitia’s death, a warning that misery comes in several waves. Or the shared worry of two mothers from different eras trying to protect their nineteen-year-old daughters from a deadly virus.
Maybe the lesson is simpler, obvious. I live in a rambling and cranky old house that has seen much since it was built in 1840. Our home. The McCues’ home. Two pandemics unite us across a century because the devil eventually returned.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
A disaster is often defined as a sudden, destructive event that brings with it great damage and loss. Its original meaning, from Middle French and Old Italian, comes from the Latin prefix dis, signifying a negative force, and astro for star. Stars were blamed because of the belief that their alignment influenced the fate and future of humans.1 It was thought that when something bad happened on earth, it was a reflection of some ill-fated star pattern. With this definition, disaster is too often viewed through the lens of luck; the word catastrophe also shares the astro explanation. These meanings put humankind in a passive position, at the mercy of forces we cannot control, always surprised by what the constellations may bring.
This description of a disaster may be antiquated, but it still has hold. In the course of writing this book about crisis and disaster management, I came to believe that the word itself had set us on a course of amnesia, excusing our shock and awe, as if we had no agency to manage these disruptive occurrences. After the horror, we just want to move on, bury the dead, pick up the debris, and heal our wounds. It is a very human instinct—to move on from the past and to assume that because we have survived, we have coped. We buy bumper stickers or hold memorial concerts named for the city that has been destroyed—New York, Boston, Paris—adding the word strong to signify our supposed resilience. Emotions, not tactics, guide our sense of success.
As I write this, the world is still roiled by the COVID-19 pandemic, with its recurrent waves and seemingly endless variations. Fresh from this experience, surely, we all know the proverbial stars will misalign again? The Texas ice storm that eviscerated the state’s electrical grid? A large tanker ship stuck in the Suez Canal? A hack against our gas pipelines? Perhaps a hurricane? A flood? A wildfire? A drought? A Miami apartment falling to the ground? A Travis Scott concert? Space debris? The list is endless. Where even to start? Where to end?
This spoil of riches is the point. For there to be a start, it assumes a finish. For the war to end, it assumes there was once peace. For you to stop worrying, it assumes there was a time of unicorns and rainbows when days were carefree and weightless.
I’m here to disabuse you of that notion. There is no finish line.
So much of our discourse about responding to disasters has ignored the potential to do better now. We focus on the past and future, but not on the present. We debate how best to prevent climate change that causes flooding. We seek long-term resiliency in response to that flooding. As for our capacity to succeed on the day of the flood, well, that’s up to the stars.
There will be a devil next time, and the next time, and the next time, and the time after that. Its lessons are for all of us because we must all consider ourselves disaster managers: the CEO and government leader, the teacher and student, the small business owner and the middle manager, the mom and dad. None of us, we all know now, is immune from a devil whose tricks range widely: climate catastrophe, cyberattack, terrorism, pandemic, or a mass shooting. We look one way, fearful of a threat, and from behind comes the next. The devil is indifferent to any of our desires to give it just one name, to delegate it to some other person’s responsibility. So we must better prepare through an era when our connectivity is both a strength and a vulnerability. We must accept this fact, the stars are misaligned, and position ourselves with the tools and skills to be better prepared to respond to the events as they come. And in that positioning, we can respond to these recurring disruptions in ways that make us more likely to minimize the harm, though harm will still surely come.
The two sides of a disaster framework.
To do so, this introduction describes the basic contours of disaster management and where they have failed us in the past. Disaster chasers tend to divide the world into two moments: left and right of boom, before and after the disaster. It isn’t this simple; there are subdivisions and pieces to each side. But the binary division is conceptually accurate. Essentially, when we think of a disaster, we focus on all the things we can do to stop it from happening (left of boom) and then all the things we can do to pick up the pieces when it does (right of boom). Subsequently, we view success as keeping to the left of boom and failure as right of boom.
It is a consistent framework for those of us in the field. Imagine looking at a timeline of a generic disaster. The left-of-boom stages describe the investments and policies an institution, a business, a government, or an individual makes to avoid it from happening. These are the prevention and protection efforts to delay or dodge the devil. They can be big projects, such as a missile defense system or a nation’s carbon reduction plan, along with the simple ones we perform day to day, such as putting a light on a bike at night or clearing out storm drains to deter water backup to protect our home. We don’t think of these ordinary things as left-of-boom investments, but that is exactly what they are. We are trying to avoid the disaster or at least minimize the consequences should it arrive.
Yet despite best efforts, the “boom” will arrive. The boom may be a crack, a rumble, a surge, an electric fizzle, a howl, a deadly quiet. They are all booms: disaster management is about being ready for any boom in any shape, for whatever the devil brings. This concept, known as all-hazards planning, does not focus on one specific hazard but instead on all of them. Some specialized threats may need specialized reactions—a fire is, in fact, different from a cyberattack—but fewer specialized reactions than we may think. Accepting both the commonality and frequency of disasters allows us to focus on the few key skills needed to manage them rather than highly specialized measures that belong to limited environments. Booms can be slow or fast, wet or dry, hot or cold, silent or loud, visible or invisible. It does not, it should not, matter. It will come. So we must focus on the right-of-boom activities, which are all those things we do to respond, recover, and build more resilience once the devil has arrived, again.
This book focuses on those commonalities and about how we can live more confidently in anticipation of the right of boom, nurturing our immediate responses again and again and again. I want to make disaster management simple, accessible, because I no longer believe that it can be a unique skill delegated to professionals. Disasters, whose impacts know no limits, must be prepared for by disaster managers, which, ultimately, is every one of us. There are basic features and skills that are called upon that need not be secret. These efforts are not solely for a specific type of harm or a single disaster. They apply universally, perpetually. We know them now. By highlighting the recurring features of disaster management, we can, as a society, overcome some of the fallacies and limitations that have affected the field for too long.
Mostly, we need to stop being surprised. If we can structure ourselves around the probability, not the mere possibility, that we will sometime, somehow, always be on the right side of the boom, then we will better invest and nurture the capabilities and skills that can minimize the harm that is to follow. We will get over the notion of what is often experienced as the preparedness paradox, the outcome of being successfully prepared for that one single disaster, resulting in the disaster either being avoided or its impact lessened. Naysayers will then believe that the investment was unnecessary because the consequences were less than anticipated. Instead, sustainable twenty-first-century disaster management doesn’t take place during a single moment in time or focus on a single event. It recognizes the widest ongoing and recurrent potential for disaster: it treats the devil seriously, knowing that the devil never sleeps.
My goal is not to dwell too much on the pandemic in these pages. I use the pandemic to expose how, despite its viral novelty, it followed the same disaster framework that guides all others. Since all of us have lived through it, it will be easy, if not maddening, to see how it unfolded according to a known cadence. To the left of boom were all the efforts to better protect food supplies, detect a global pandemic, inform, educate, and even prepare for its inevitable arrival by buying masks or surging supplies. Not enough of that happened, of course, and many nations spent the early part of 2020 squandering that time, looking at the efforts in China and then Italy from a distance, hoping the boom wouldn’t come.2 It did. And the response and staggered recovery, from flattening the curve to staying at home to masking and eventually a vaccine, were ways we collectively and individually adapted once we were to the right of the boom. The pandemic was scary, but it followed an oddly familiar framework, like a predictable surprise.
The devil will come, but to assume that we are ready because we accept this fact is giving ourselves too much credit. Screaming that the sky is falling isn’t exactly going to save lives, protect property, and prepare communities and our families better. The nature of recurring disasters, and positioning society for them, is to admit that preparations for them are never complete. We would be in grave danger if we assumed some finish line; the nature of the devil is that you never quite catch up to him.
And that means that we need to look at success differently. True, stopping a climate disaster or a cyberattack is a measure of success; putting locks on your home door is an important investment to stop an intruder. What any of us wouldn’t give to live, always, on the left side of the boom. But we can’t; we won’t. We need a different metric. We must now view success through the lens of what I call consequence minimization. Simply, did we do enough so that our entry to the right of the boom will result in less horror, not none? We can make things less bad by sustained preparedness. Accepting that we live on the right side of the boom, we can judge our investments best by whether our individual and institutional planning and preparedness means that fewer people died or less was damaged. The measure of success here is not that we can avoid the devil, only that his constant return will be less tragic.
Working in this field, I wish every day that those who spend their time trying to eliminate risk succeed. I have three children whose lives will soon be built far from mine; I would welcome a world that remained on the left side of the boom. As a society, government, and individuals, we need to do everything we can to stop the bad from coming: mitigate climate change, minimize radicalization, protect cyber networks, identify public health dangers immediately, alert populations to impending doom. I’m all for it. But this is not a book about climate mitigation or how to counter radicalization. I take those, and other harms, as a given.
But to accept defeat shouldn’t leave us helpless. Success need not be binary, where either the disaster happened or it didn’t. There is no role in our lives that is immune to catastrophe. The following chapters provide the steps necessary to brace for the recurring disruptions. The objective is to stop us from being in a situation where we are wringing our hands and asking only, “How did this happen this time?” and instead help us see the recurring themes, successes, and failures that will better prepare us for the inevitable times ahead. Based on fieldwork, the work of experts and practitioners, reports and commissions, history, some imagination of what might have been, and the reflections of people who have been in the scrum (coincidentally, all interviews were done on Zoom due to the pandemic), the legacy of past disasters will be assessed—sometimes counterintuitively—and explored for the lessons for today.
Each chapter examines crises from the distant and near past to draw eight important common lessons that can be implemented now to prepare us for our inevitable future of recurring disasters. Chapters 1–3 focus on the essential building blocks to prepare for the boom: an acceptance that prevention will fail, established mechanisms to listen and communicate as the disaster unfolds, and structures to enforce unity of effort to respond to the crisis. Chapters 4–6 highlight best practices to limit the harms unfolding on the left side of the boom: avoiding the last line of defense crutch, constantly testing response systems, and training how to “stop the bleed.” Finally, chapters 7 and 8 lay out tactics to pivot and learn in time for the next disaster.
These steps are not mutually exclusive. Take one, two, a few, not in order. They are an effort to crystallize the management and leadership skills for all, in whatever roles, that worked or failed in disasters of the past after the boom came. The benefit, if it can be called that, of an era of catastrophes is that there is no dearth of material. A review of them as a group rather than each individually illuminates consistent guideposts for how to position ourselves better time and time again. These lessons focus us on a single moment, that minute before the impending boom, and what we might have wished we had done. It turns out “woulda, coulda, shoulda” is actually a pretty good standard for preparing for the devil.
The book ends with a call to action. We need to reject the fantasy of a fictional place we have deluded ourselves into believing in, a place where we can claim some sort of victory. It doesn’t exist. Instead, we must think in terms of a place that positions us more safely as we wait for the devil’s inevitable return. We are here, now, and that is success. If we think this ends, then the devil wins. We can always do better next time in this infinite loop of destruction.
Reoccurring disaster framework.
THERE ARE NO SURPRISES
Disasters are the standard now. They are not the aberration, but the norm. We surely must know that as we shift from one tragedy or surprise to another. Yet I feel that the fact we can’t seem to get our heads around the potential for disaster and prepare for it in rational ways is a testament to the power of positive thinking. We just live our lives, go about our days; maybe there are a few random emergencies and blips, but consistent disruption seems beyond our thinking.
- “Kayyem combines real-world national security experience, the everyday personal experiences of an individual, and the genius of a policy thinker for her compelling and engaging new book. Virtually anything Kayyem writes is a must-read and she has put it all together to help us prepare for our era of disasters.”—Jeh Johnson, former secretary of homeland security
- “From 9/11 through the pandemic, the United States has been battered by several decades of emergencies. Even more, and worse, are ahead. Juliette Kayyem has a clear-eyed, sane, urgent-but-not-frantic set of principles to guide us in dealing with ‘the devil.’ We’ll all be better off for following her advice.”—James Fallows, National Book Award winner
- “Juliette Kayyem is who we call when disaster strikes for a reason: she’s calm, unafraid, and deeply informed. Here she leaves no disaster unturned as she shows how we can be ready to respond. She’ll open your eyes: you’ll definitely never think of Fukushima, fires, or even Beyoncé the same way again.”—Erin Burnett, CNN anchor
- “Juliette Kayyem’s infectious energy and passion for reasoned crisis management jump out of the pages of her book. She has written a succinct, compelling kitchen-table tutorial on how to get your head around crises. A must-read for first responders, crisis managers, and the normal citizen who wants to anticipate, prepare, cope, and be resilient.”—James Clapper, former national intelligence director
- “We live in a dangerous world where big trouble is inevitable. Oddly, those who warn us to be better prepared are often dismissed. But Juliette Kayyem refuses to be a modern-day Cassandra. Get your head around this book and get smart. Or ignore her lessons at your own peril.”—Miles O’ Brien, correspondent, PBS Newshour
- “An eye-opening look at the disasters that have troubled humans throughout history—and why they seem to be increasing in frequency… An urgent, useful survival manual for our time.”—Kirkus
- “Full of practical advice and incisive analysis, this is an astute and timely road map for mitigating the consequences of the next cataclysm.”—Publishers Weekly
- “In a world marred by preventable miscalculation, Juliette Kayyem’s ‘The Devil Never Sleeps’ provides a playbook for making it out alive.”—Paige Williams, The New Yorker
- On Sale
- Mar 29, 2022
- Page Count
- 240 pages