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Coordinating council weighs D.C. area response to January snowstorm

By Ashley Halsey III
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 10:30 PM

In a nation that likes to color-code its emergency worries, is "Code White" going to grab your attention?

Will those words connect better than the "chance-of-freezing-rain-and-snow" forecast that you may have heard on the morning of Jan. 26?

Because until Washington figures out how to control the weather, it had better learn how to control the flow of mankind if it wants to avoid a repeat of the disastrous commute that began early that day and lasted well past midnight.

That was a primary conclusion voiced Wednesday at an after-action review by the Emergency Preparedness Council, a multi-jurisdictional committee under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

One suggestion was using the term Code White to get the attention of a public calloused by false alarms and hardened by surviving the "Snowmageddon" of 2010. Another was that it is far better to err on the side of caution when deciding whether to dismiss people from work and school early.

"Taking criticism when the storm doesn't show up is better than not being prepared when it does," said Maj. Gen. Karl E. Horst of the U.S. Joint Forces Command.

The misery that will long be remembered was a conspiracy of bad weather and poor timing. A cold front arrived with a vanguard of pounding rain that transportation officials said swept much of the pre-treatment from the roads. Then came a burst of freezing rain followed by a furiously hard snowfall.

Amid that, the federal government and many businesses shut down early, flooding icy streets with rush-hour traffic, and many people stayed at their desks too long after the get-out-of-town warning was issued. Hundreds of abandoned cars, stranded buses and jackknifed tractor-trailers blocked key city streets and major highways. Emergency vehicles and salt trucks were paralyzed in traffic.

"Storms that start at the beginning of rush hour are different storms, and they have to be treated as such," said Neil J. Pedersen, administrator of the Maryland State Highway Administration. "We are rethinking some of the messages we put out."

Pedersen also said many truckers stayed on the road simply because there were few places for them to park.

"That snow storm was a blueprint for anybody who wants to commit terrorism in this city," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (At-Large). "Cause gridlock by blocking a few key roads and intersections.

The emergency council will send a set of recommendations to its parent body. They are an assessment of the information systems that gather travel information, development of better ways to relay that information to the public, better coordination among government agencies on when to end the workday early, launching a public education campaign to stress personal preparedness and the importance of heeding emergency directives, and a review of the lessons learned from major storms in the 1990s and the three big ones last winter.

Phil Andrews, a Montgomery County Council member and chairman of the emergency council, said a system that provided real-time information about specific traffic conditions region-wide is a critical need.

"That would allow for skillful management of the transportation systems as it changes during an incident," said Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville).

The use of social media - including Twitter and Facebook - should be expanded by emergency communicators, the council was told.

"In reality, people are going to use the social media to reach out to us," said Merni Fitzgerald, director of public affairs in Fairfax County. "Some of us were tweeting until midnight, telling people when buses would arrive."

If a perfect storm of arriving weather and evening rush hour should reoccur, however, the question of whether people should go to work in the first place when they should be sent home, and whether they should be told to stay put until the roads are clear is the central issue, Mendelson underscored.

"This discussion has been too complacent and the recommendations are too weak," he said after about two hours of discussion. "Maybe they need to tell them they have to go home. Are we willing to say that in certain circumstances people have to be told?"

David Robertson, COG's executive director, said that in making his point Mendelson raised a good question.

"How regional do you really want to be, mindful that we are three sovereign states and multiple jurisdictions?" Robertson asked. "The [council] board is not the end all and be all. We can be the place where these conversations take place."

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