October 16, 2011

YET MORE HEARINGS were held last week on the District’s ability to deal with emergencies. Yet again officials acknowledged missteps and promised changes. No doubt lessons have been learned and improvements made. But the capital area will remain vulnerable until the central gap in disaster planning is addressed: the absence of a regional structure that can direct a response.

The D.C. Council and a House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee held separate hearings that reviewed the response to the earthquake that shook the region in August. “Everyone did the wrong thing,” council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said of the gridlock that occurred when workers, ill advisedly exiting buildings, tried to get home. In a separate hearing on Capitol Hill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that federal workers “literally had no idea what to do.” Sadly, the earthquake, which Ms. Norton aptly called “a perfect proxy for a terrorist attack,” was not the first time weaknesses have been revealed in the area’s response to an unexpected, rapidly developing situation.

Be it the 5.8-magnitude earthquake or last January’s fast-moving snowstorm or even last week’s disruption of Metro’s Orange Line, the public was disadvantaged by a lack of timely, reliable information. The first message alert about the earthquake came nearly a half-hour after it occurred, and the message about what to do was mixed. Officials with the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency said they’ve taken steps to refine the messages and get them out sooner. In particular, they say, it’s likely they will advise people to stay put rather than to drive home because it’s clear that an area so congested on a routine day can’t manage a mass exodus.

Nonetheless, as Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander testified at Thursday’s hearing, issues still exist because so many jurisdictions are involved. The mayor has the authority to order an evacuation from the city, but beyond that there is no single entity with authority to advise the public in a fast-moving emergency. Instead, there are 17 local jurisdictions and the federal government sharing information (to be sure, a good thing) but each able to call its own shots. A more sensible system, as we’ve pointed out before, is one in which there are designated, trained staff people to collect information, make decisions and inform the public. New York City has such a system. So does London.

The hesitation of Washington’s jurisdictions to cede turf in decision making to a proper regional authority is shortsighted and could someday exact a terrible price.