Ready for This?
Here in the nation's capital, we've watched the Katrina-caused chaos in New Orleans from a safe and comfortable distance. Why couldn't the authorities get their act together?, we can afford to ask smugly. But all the while the real question's there, nagging: Could it happen here?
It's hardly academic, as those of us who lived through the panic of 9/11 are all too aware. Since that date, it's something I've thought about many mornings, as I set off to my job in downtown Washington, while my wife headed to her office in Alexandria and, until recently, our children boarded the bus to the local Falls Church schools. Like countless families in this area, we spend our days with miles and miles between us. If disaster struck, what would we do? What information could we expect to get on how to react, and where would that information come from? What could we expect our government, on all levels, to do to help us?
There's good news on two fronts: Washington is far less vulnerable to the kind of region-wide natural disaster that struck New Orleans, and we have new systems that ensure better regional coordination than we've had in the past in responding to foreseeable disasters like hurricanes or flooding. But the bad news is twofold, too: Washington's high on the list of major terrorist targets, and an unforeseen calamity like another 9/11-style attack could spawn vast public confusion.
That's because there's no one person or agency in this area charged with assuring regional coordination among levels of government and among different functions such as law enforcement, transportation and communicating with the public. You can count on various jurisdictions and agencies issuing different -- and even contradictory -- advice. Ongoing turf battles, in fact, make the risk of Katrina-like chaos in our backyard unacceptably high.
What if a plane flew into the Capitol, or multiple suicide bombers blew themselves up in coordinated attacks at the White House, Union Station and the Metro Center subway station? Here's the likely scenario that would unfold for a typical family of four today: Perhaps one of my colleagues hears or reads the news first at work, say on the Internet. He calls his wife on her cell phone at her job in Arlington to alert her. They agree to go home and retrieve the children from their Fairfax County schools, so he heads for the Metro. But the system is overwhelmed and trains aren't running. Washington's streets are already gridlocked as frantic people try to flee the city, blocking rescuers in the process. He sets off on foot for Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, hoping to hitchhike but otherwise planning to walk home to Annandale.
His wife barely gets on I-66 before she's mired in bumper-to-bumper traffic, unable to reach their children's schools by phone because all circuits are busy. She listens to the radio, flipping from station to station, but the news reports vary widely in their descriptions of what's unfolding. In her rear view mirror, she sees a military vehicle caught in the mess.
Their son and daughter, meantime, are locked down at their schools, which await official word of what's happened. Miles of choked roads and a nearly complete lack of information or sense of what to do separate them all for hours.
Obviously, it doesn't have to be this way. I happened to be in London during the second round of attempted subway and bus bombings on July 21 and saw how the public received a common message from the authorities about what was happening, the condition of the transportation system, and the need, in that instance, to "stay put." The message was communicated by way of the news media and office building public address systems, as well as individual e-mails and text messages. No fewer than three times that day, official announcements made over the PA system in the building I was in provided updates; the first two instructed us to stay where we were, and the third told us it was safe to be on our different ways. We'd do well to adopt London's model for regional risk communications.
In the case of a terrorist attack in this area, as opposed to a hurricane or other natural disaster, evacuation for all but those at immediate risk is not only unnecessary but also dangerous. We don't have enough roads, bridges and subway lines to handle regular traffic, let alone the surge that would occur in a major catastrophe. Nevertheless, certain emergencies will require moving thousands of people from points A, B, and C to points D, E, and F and beyond across the region. But our region's highway, subway and bus systems aren't centrally coordinated when an incident occurs. Highways will become gridlocked as individuals struggle to get to specific destinations by car, and most transit riders will be left stranded. (And what will become of the thousands of poor and disabled who live in the area and, like the New Orleans poor, have no cars to drive out of town?)
New York solved most of this problem more than a decade ago with what is called TRANSCOM, a regional transportation coordinating agency run by the highway departments and bus and railway systems. On 9/11, TRANSCOM proved effective in managing traffic, keeping the roads open for first responders. Washington's Transportation Planning Board is trying to establish a similar system here with the active support of Congress, the Virginia and Maryland departments of transportation and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Only the District of Columbia Department of Transportation has failed to join this effort, which has stalled the entire project.
It's time for this foot dragging to end. Not only would a TRANSCOM system help in the case of a terrorist attack, it would also help manage more routine events like truck crashes on the Beltway that plague our daily commutes. The Washington version of TRANSCOM could ensure that all transportation agencies are aware of major developments, provide support to each other and let the public know the best alternative routes.
As the seat of the federal government, the Washington metropolitan region is home to the headquarters of many federal agencies. But unless there's close cooperation between all levels of government, this significant federal presence could hurt rather than help in a disaster if federal priorities take precedence over the needs of the public, or federal agencies act inconsistently in a crisis. We saw the effects on 9/11, when some federal agencies sent their workers home while others didn't, and none communicated with state and local first responders to say what they were doing.
The downsides of this could be catastrophic. For example, needless loss of life could result if people were caught in a traffic jam because a federal agency with police power shut down an evacuation route -- say, Constitution Avenue near the Capitol or 16th Street near the White House -- designated by a local plan.
Along with the Board of Trade, WMATA and our local congressional delegation, we successfully advocated for a homeland security coordinator for the National Capital Region in the Department of Homeland Security. One of this office's functions is to coordinate the federal family to prevent inconsistent actions by individual agencies, such as allowing evacuations when employees should be sheltering in place. There's been some improvement, but I continue to doubt that federal agencies will coordinate adequately among themselves, let alone with state and local governments. In fact, as recently as two weeks ago, federal law enforcement and military officials remained silent about their disaster plans and resources in strategy and planning sessions with state and local agencies. Communication has to be two-way; the feds need to tell us what their actions and messages will be in the event of a disaster, just as they have the right to know state and local plans.
Evacuating any American city is extremely difficult at best and carries huge risks for all involved. That's why staying put, or "sheltering in place," is the best response for most people in most circumstances. Our region's recently launched public preparedness education campaign is helpful in driving home that point.
At the same time, effective evacuation plans should be in place for any required local or regional exodus. For example, people would need to know where to gather for transportation out of the city or other affected area. These plans need to be reviewed to make provisions for the elderly, sick and disabled; they should work whether or not federal assistance is available, and they should include private and nonprofit organizations.
Here's what should happen if a sudden, unexpected disaster hit Washington. At work, my colleague and his wife each receive an e-mail from the regional emergency coordination center telling them what's happening. Public address systems in their buildings provide them with specific information about what they should do. My colleague learns that he and the rest of us should remain in place for the next hour and then evacuate by bus. He leaves the office at the appointed time to find plenty of buses staged at predetermined points. Police officers are posted at every intersection, the major streets are one-way out of the city, and the traffic lights are synchronized. Emergency vehicles move freely up and down the streets in designated lanes. He gets on a bus to West Falls Church, where a local bus takes him to a designated stop within walking distance of his home.
His wife is instructed to stay where she is until further notice. Her building is equipped with water and food, and a designated emergency coordinator for her company provides updates from the regional emergency coordination center. She looks out her window and sees a convoy of military vehicles heading toward Washington on a road that is open to them. Meanwhile, their kids are told what is going on and that food and activities are available for them in their schools, where they must stay until it is safe for their parents to pick them up. The regional emergency coordination center will let the schools know when students may be released to their parents and will communicate via e-mail with parents when they may meet their children. Overall, governments and the public work together to contain the crisis and minimize the impact on the region.
Sound like a pipedream? It's not. We could fill the gaps in our regional plans and dramatically improve our level of safety quickly and at little cost. But as New Orleans so starkly showed us, we need to do it soon.
David Snyder, former mayor of Falls Church and a member of the Falls Church City Council, chairs the transportation committee of the Emergency Preparedness Council of the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments.