D.C. police chief needs remedial quake training

You know there’s a problem when the chief of police praises the public for its good behavior in an emergency — when most of the public did exactly the wrong thing.

That’s what happened after Tuesday’s moderate earthquake, which revealed new ways in which our region is ill-prepared for emergencies. It also reminded us of some old problems, such as the need for the area’s fragmented leadership to agree about how to stagger employee and student dismissal times in a crisis to keep travelers from overwhelming roads and transit lines by heading home all at once.

New lessons first. Every California schoolchild knows how you’re typically supposed to react if you’re indoors when you feel the shakes: Hide under a sturdy table or stand in a doorway that will protect you if the building collapses.

That’s not what most Washingtonians did at 1:51 p.m. Tuesday. We marched out of our buildings as fast as we could. Then, in many cases, we compounded the error by milling around on sidewalks just outside. In fact, you’re supposed to move well away from buildings in case they topple.

In short, we flunked Earthquake 101. I include myself: I, and nearly everybody else in The Washington Post newsroom, fled immediately — and waited outside right by the doors.

At least Washingtonians have an excuse. We’re psychologically braced to deal with a terrorist dirty bomb or poison gas attack. Nobody was expecting a temblor of a size not felt on the East Coast since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

But that doesn’t justify District Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier’s misguided comments Tuesday on the 10 p.m. Fox 5 television broadcast. She applauded people for quickly leaving buildings, not hinting that they should have sheltered inside beforehand.

“People realized it was an earthquake, and mostly everybody inside of a building came outside. So the self-evacuation was immediate,” she said. “I was actually in a building downtown, and I was very impressed with how orderly the evacuation was in the buildings.”

Compare that with the D.C. government’s own Alert DC crisis information network, which gave the proper advice in a 2:18 p.m. bullet on Tuesday: “As safety measure if experiencing [a quake] please take cover under a desk, table, bed or door frames. Stay clear of windows and other glass. Please stay put.”

Lanier didn’t back down when I asked her about it in an interview Wednesday. She said it was unrealistic to expect people to wait inside if they think their building is about to come down.

“Thousands of people did what their instinct told them to do, which is get out,” Lanier said. “No matter what we tell people, if I’m in a building like I was in yesterday, and it was shaking violently, I’m not getting under a desk. I’m leaving the building.”

The quake also revived concerns about the region’s inability to coordinate early closures in an emergency.

The District suffered early afternoon gridlock when numerous federal government agencies and other offices sent employees home while buildings underwent inspection.

This is a long-standing problem in the region.

It’s been difficult to solve because individual county and municipal governments don’t want to give up their authority to decide when to shut down. It doesn’t help that dozens of federal agencies also make such decisions themselves, even if they listen to guidance from the Office of Personnel Management.

“Avoiding a compressed rush hour is important, because our transportation capacity is stressed by a normal rush hour,” said Phil Andrews, a Montgomery County Council member who is current chair of the Emergency Preparedness Council of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG).

“Employers need to coordinate with each other, or at least take into account the transportation conditions, so they are not operating in a vacuum,” Andrews said.

Andrews heads a temporary committee that’s preparing recommendations on how to achieve that. The group, which expects to report by late October, was set up after the legendary Jan. 26 snowstorm, when some people’s commutes took eight hours or more.

Beside getting everybody to cooperate on dismissals, the committee is preparing common-sense recommendations, such as ensuring that key traffic lights have battery backup so they work even when power is out.

On behalf of COG, Fairfax County is also launching a Web site this autumn to give the public one-stop access to regionwide information about travel and other topics in a crisis.

All such measures would be welcome. Meanwhile, Lanier should brush up on her earthquake studies.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section.
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