WASHINGTON -- The District of Columbia's emergency management agency is making changes to the way it alerts the public about emergencies and will likely advise people to stay put rather than try to drive home during future disasters, officials said at a D.C. Council hearing Thursday.
The advice to wait before jumping in the car is part of a strategy to mitigate the traffic gridlock that occurred in the wake of a fast-moving January snowstorm and the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that shook the nation's capital in August. Both events caused people to be stranded on the roads for hours and exposed weaknesses in the region's disaster preparedness.
For example, the district's emergency management agency did not send out its first alert about the earthquake until nearly a half-hour after it occurred – at which point thousands of people had spilled out of buildings and taken to the roads.
"Everyone did the wrong thing," said Councilmember Phil Mendelson, D-At Large, who conducted Thursday's hearing. "It's as if the default when there's an event is that everybody should leave, and then they get stuck in traffic for hours or for half a day."
Deputy mayor for public safety Paul Quander said the district's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency has eliminated much of the vetting process for alerts so they can get to the public faster. Millicent West, the agency's director, acknowledged that the agency was too slow to alert the public about the earthquake.
She said her goal is now to send an alert about an emergency within five minutes and to include a prepared "script" with general guidelines about how to deal with the event taking place. The alert would also tell people not to try to leave the district until more information is available.
"We want for people to stay in place until we can provide information for them," West said. "We also want for people to be more informed in general about what they should be doing."
West said after the hearing that she was confident her agency could get the word out as long as it gets cooperation from the federal government – in particular the Office of Personnel Management – and officials in Maryland and Virginia.
Mendelson said he believed a better-coordinated alert system could persuade people not to take to the roads.
"I think if we send a clear message that tells people to wait to avoid the gridlock, then people will do that," he said.
Terry Bellamy, director of the district's Department of Transportation, acknowledged it was impossible for his agency to manage traffic when everybody tries to leave the district at the same time.
"There's pretty much nothing we can do once they get on the road," he said.
Only the mayor has the authority to order an evacuation of the city. But in the event of emergencies that don't require an evacuation, there is no single person or agency with the authority to tell people what to do. Mendelson said more needs to be done to streamline the decision-making during such incidents, and Quander and West acknowledged they have a long way to go before reaching that goal.