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D.C. Evacuation Plans: No One In Charge Of Capital Emergency Response

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DC EVACUATION GRIDLOCK
Traffic gridlock during last month's earthquake | Getty

WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital made it through a rare earthquake and treacherous blizzard this year, laying bare a scary reality: Getting out of Washington in an emergency presents a disaster in and of itself.

Rush hour here is typically rough, but the District's unique status as a federal city with limited home rule -- and set between two states with multiple local jurisdictions -- defies a coordinated response even a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The problem, say local officials and disaster response experts, is a fragmented governmental structure that encompasses dozens of jurisdictions, agencies and even police departments with no single entity coordinating action in an emergency.

"The question of who’s in charge is still not resolved," said D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), who plans a hearing on the issue Oct. 13. "It's the same question that was raised by the 9/11 Commission on a national level and it's especially an issue in the national capital region [where] folks in the District are happy just dealing with the District and folks in Maryland just want to deal with Maryland."

Mendelson still chafes at one aspect of the response on Sept. 11, 2001. After a plane hit the Pentagon in nearby Arlington County, District transportation officials turned all outbound traffic lights green to help speed evacuation out of the city. Their efforts were thwarted, though, by the Military District of Washington, which closed all bridges across the Potomac River. The councilmember is still pushing to establish a regional incident commander with authority to direct area transit in an emergency.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano recently told a Senate oversight committee that orderly evacuations of the capital "can be done better." She said her department is working with local authorities and the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to better plan emergency actions.

The lack of coordination was clear again last month when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the region. While Washington has made significant strides to improve emergency communications for first responders, the public got muddled messages that resulted in gridlock and confusion.

The region's largest employer, the federal government, took the brunt of the blame. When the quake hit, several federal agencies allowed workers to leave at 2:30 p.m. But OPM, which is responsible for decisions on work hours for more than 300,000 federal workers in the region, didn't issue its decision until 4 p.m. and most workers didn't get notice via email until half an hour later. The slow evacuation -- and the realization that most people would have been better off to have "sheltered in place" -- prompted much hand-wringing over what Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called an "incoherent response" to the earthquake.

Conditions on the roads and on public transit were even worse in January when a massive snowstorm blocked traffic arteries and paralyzed the region. Mendelson at the time called the mess, "a blueprint for anybody who wants to commit terrorism in this city."

Norton, in an interview with The Huffington Post, said while everyone worries about getting out of the District in an emergency, the real issues are a lack of communication and coordination when disaster strikes. She marvels at why there still isn't one widely publicized website where area residents can go to get accurate, timely information on what to do.

The snowstorm and earthquake confirmed concerns laid out in a 2006 report by researchers at West Virginia University that said, "A spontaneous mass evacuation could overwhelm the capacity" of local governments to cope. It also said the public had little confidence in the federal government’s ability to carry out mass evacuations in a future disaster.

Brian Gerber, the study's lead author who is now a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, told The Huffington Post that compared to other large urban areas, Washington is relatively well-organized when it comes to disaster response. But he said the usual hierarchy for emergency response -- starting with local officials, moving up to the state level and in a major disaster proceeding to a request for federal disaster relief -- doesn't work in a region with so many autonomous jurisdictions and that is often big-footed by a massive federal bureaucracy.

"The system is not structured so that a single person can order evacuations across the District and the two other states. That’s true," Gerber said. "But, realistically, in an incident of large enough scale that it requires widespread evacuation, the challenge is not going to be having someone to make the appropriate call. It's going to be how well you manage the movement of people."

David Robertson, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said the region can do a better job coordinating with its single largest employer. "We’ve been examining how we can help the federal government be more aware of and responsive to existing local conditions," he said, noting the "ripple effects" of any decision that sends workers home en masse.

Norton, whose House emergency management subcommittee plans a hearing soon on emergency response in the capital region, said the federal government bears responsibility for telling its workers to "head for the hills" after the earthquake when most would have been better off just staying put.

"Some of this is heartbreaking to me after 9/1," she said. "I don’t see any difference between the first few hours after 9/11 and the first few hours after the earthquake. None. The only difference is we should have known better."

Dan Kaniewski at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University agreed that no matter what local and state officials do, if the federal government decides to close, they will be left to deal with the consequences.

"In any other part of the country the old saying that the federal government supports, not supplants, state and local officials, applies," he said. "But here we've turned the equation on its head."

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