Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"A Blinding Flash of the Obvious"

Last Friday, Colin Powell said, "It "should have been a blinding flash of the obvious... that when you order a mandatory evacuation, you can't expect everybody to evacuate on their own." It certainly does seem obvious, and I've wondered why there weren't buses at the ready to take people out, or any other options besides having people to go to the Superdome. Can this oversight be blamed on New Orleans, as well-known for its dysfunction as its charm? Or should the Department of Homeland Security or FEMA have been at the ready?

At the moment, I'm not really interested in assigning blame -- but I am wondering whether this situation could happen again, in other places. I know that when they've raised the Terror Alert here and I've thought about having to evacuate our home, a half a mile from the D.C. border and about six miles from the White House, I think solely and squarely of how fast can I get the kids into the minivan and get the hell out of Dodge. (Or whether it would even be worth it.) After New Orleans, I've started to wonder a little more about D.C.'s evacuation plans -- and whether anyone in charge here has had one of those blinding flashes of the obvious -- that there are plenty of folks here sans cars as well. Thirty-seven percent of the population, as a matter of fact.

Last July 4, my family and I took part in a test of Washington, D.C.'s emergency evacuation plan. Developed in response to Sept. 11, the plan calls for police to direct hundreds of thousands of people to seven evacuation routes, where green and red traffic signals will run longer. "Operation Fast Forward" was put into effect at 9:50 p.m, 15 minutes after the fireworks display ended on the Mall, and although the Washington Post reported the next day that the evacuation met with "an initial snag" on Constitution Ave., it was considered fairly successful. We ourselves zipped home in about 15 minutes flat, something of a Suburban World Record. It was just a test, of course, and a limited one at that, so the fact that it was totally focused on motor vehicle evacuation isn't particularly telling.

But I've searched the web site for the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, and I can't come up with any helpful tips for those who might have to hoof it out of here. Nothing over at the Department of Homeland Security, either, though I did find a cheery suggestion to "cultivate a network of family and friends who can help you get out of the city." I also found something that mentioned Amtrak, but I don't think that would be overly helpful to indigent citizens, not to mention that I've read that Amtrak ceased service to New Orleans the day before the evacuation orders were given.

Sunday, in an article that stated a major terrorist act would throw D.C. into chaos, the Washington Post reported that the Transportation Department is working on a "walk-out" plan with staging areas for people without transportation to get assistance. But in the case of a terrorist attack, the paper said officials are concerned about publicizing the neighborhood meeting places for fear they could be secondary targets. Um, great.

So, four years after I stood outside my apartment building and watched the Pentagon burning, and $2 billion in federal, state and local monies later, it doesn't look as though D.C. is a whole lot better off than New Orleans should an evacuation be warranted. That this is unacceptable is, to borrow a phrase, blindingly obvious.