Friday, September 16, 2005

National Emergency Preparedness Month

Yesterday morning I listened to Richard A. White, General Manager and CEO of the D.C. Metro system, discuss the city's evacuation plans on WTOP radio. "This being D.C.," we were assured, evacuation plans "have long been in place." (One would hope, I thought.) The reporter announced that "Metro would play a big role," and Mr. White chimed in, "It's just a question of all the agencies communicating with each other."

Um, well, yes. This being D.C. (as they keep saying), we've had a few chances to see the kinks in communication through real-life drills. Unfortunately, last spring when a plane flew into restricted air space over the city and the Capitol was evacuated, and Laura Bush and Dick Cheney whisked away to a bunker (the president was bike riding in the country), city officials were not notified until after the all-clear was sounded. Fighter jets were scrambled, the Capitol building emptied, motorcades raced from the White House, Treasury Department workers were moved across the street, and people in the Supreme Court fled to the basement, but no one thought to call Mayor Anthony Williams or the D.C. Chief of Police. First things first, of course, so by all means get those fighter jets out there, but let's not keep White House red-alerts to ourselves in the future, ok? When people are running for their lives down Constitution Avenue, the rest of us get a little understandably curious.

Anyway, obviously, communication is key. For starters, I'm hoping that someone has reassigned the FEMA officials who sent 180 hospital evacuees to Charleston, W.Va, rather than Charleston, S.C., where they were being awaited by a triage center (the second time the agency mixed up the two cities). More seriously, given that it's National Emergency Preparedness Month and citizens are being urged right and left to have their acts together before an emergency, let's hope that the local officials are doing the same. Mr. White was not exactly reassuring on this point. When asked by the reporter if D.C. would do a better job in an evacuation than New Orleans had done, this is what he came up with: "That I can't say."

Swell. If you didn't know it already, folks, yer on yer own. That may fall squarely in the great American tradition of self-reliance, but why, then, are we spending all this money on the Department of Homeland Security? Let's keep our fingers crossed that no natural disasters come our way, and that any terrorist activities are foiled ahead of time or are at least far from catastrophic. Chances are that D.C. will never have to evacuate. But someone needs to tell the authorities that, as my father always likes to say (over and over), "Chance favors the prepared mind."