The water gushes into the Metro stations at L’Enfant Plaza and Metro Center, shutting down the subway system. Waves wash across the runway at Reagan National Airport. River bridges are impassable. Highways across the region are too dangerous for travel in the 100-mph winds. Millions of people are without power.
Dramatic? Perhaps. Could it happen? Yes. And the people who watch weather and who watch over the nation’s capital region know it.
In 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that “the Washington Metropolitan area is vulnerable to severe damages from hurricanes.”
That severe damage did not happen last week, and even had Hurricane Sandy landed squarely on Washington, this one probably did not have the power to devastate this area so thoroughly.
After the worst had passed — the 60-mph winds, rain that fell for hours on end, angry surf that ripped away ocean piers and flooding roiled by raw sewage — almost everyone here felt lucky.
New York and New Jersey got whacked hard. Washington just got slapped around.
And some were left wondering: Had the nation’s capital and its surrounding counties, home to 5.7 million people, taken the full force of last week’s freak storm, would it have fared any better than New York?
The bottom line: probably not.
“There are things that we can’t control,” said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “We’ve got to get out of the mind-set that we can cope with everything.”
That same thought is echoed by Metro spokesman Dan Stessel:
“Even the best systems can be overcome by extraordinary events. What you’re seeing in New Jersey and New York — it’s not severe, it’s extreme.”
And David McKernan, head of Fairfax County’s Office of Emergency Management, agreed:
“It wasn’t that New Jersey and New York weren’t prepared. When you have a catastrophic event, no matter how well-prepared you are, residents will be hurting.”
‘One message, many voices’
Events of the past 15 years have helped crisis managers for the District, its two neighboring states and the federal government find a common sense of purpose that didn’t exist a decade ago.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, planning to evacuate the District became paramount. A year later, a pair of snipers terrorized the region. In 2003, an angry man drove his John Deere tractor into a pond on the Mall in a standoff that brought much of downtown Washington to a halt for two days. Six months later, Hurricane Isabel struck.
And then, in January 2011, a snowstorm struck harder and faster than anyone imagined at just the wrong time of day, trapping hundreds of thousands of people at work and stranding many thousands more in miles-long traffic jams. “That was a real wake-up call here,” Kirby said.