NOTWITHSTANDING the inevitable jokes about Friday the 13th, there was nothing funny about yesterday's morning of disruption in downtown Washington. Authorities stumbled badly as they sought to handle the challenges posed by a power outage and Metro track fires. The shortcomings give rise, yet again, to questions of what would happen in a far more serious emergency.
Two fires on Metro's Red Line and a Pepco power problem inconvenienced commuters, disrupted businesses and snarled traffic. No doubt things could have been much worse. After all, power was restored within 3 1/2 hours, no one was seriously hurt, and most people did get to work (albeit with delays and detours).
What's worrisome is the flat-footed response of District and Metro officials. How hard can it be to dispatch police or city transportation personnel to busy intersections? Why didn't it occur to Metro officials to put staff with flashlights in darkened stations? And why, oh why, can't Metro fix the way it communicates with its passengers? It's inexcusable that some riders who boarded trains as late as 8:10 a.m. were given no hint of the mess they were about to encounter.
Yes, every situation is different, as city officials said yesterday. But isn't that the point? The nature of emergency planning is to design systems and protocols to deal with the unexpected. Clearly local officials need to redouble their efforts. It also wouldn't hurt if the public understood its own responsibilities. It shouldn't take a city emergency plan to teach drivers that they shouldn't barrel through intersections that don't have functioning traffic signals.