Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 28, 2011

The Washington Post and many others are learning the wrong lesson. This was not an evacuation failure. It was a shelter-in-place failure

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on January 28, 2011

Today’s lead editorial in the Washington Post is blistering — it also neglects the most valuable lesson to be learned from an admittedly hard knock.

NO OFFICIAL EXCUSE, rationalization or explanation can justify the terrible – and in many instances terrifying – commute that many motorists and bus riders experienced Wednesday night. That the nation’s capital was brought to its knees by what in some places was no more than five inches of snow from a long-predicted storm is more than embarrassing and infuriating: It should also be cause for real worry about the region’s ability to cope with far more serious threats to its safety.

In the aftermath of the late-afternoon winter storm that swept the region, officials were advancing a number of explanations for the hellish circumstances that gridlocked area roads and trapped commuters in their cars for as long as 13 hours: Rain washed away the preconditioning salt treatment of roads. A layer of ice formed and was followed by an intense period of heavy snowfall. Add in the rush-hour timing and the notorious inability of many Washington residents to drive – or even show some common sense – in the snow, and some problems were inevitable.

Read the entire editorial here: How did five inches of snow turn into a disaster?

Today the National Capital Region’s airwaves and hallways are abuzz about how Wednesday’s snow event demonstrates the region’s lack of readiness to conduct an effective evacuation.  I would argue Wednesday afternoon and evening tells us much more about how we have focused too much attention on evacuation and too little on shelter-in-place.

At 2:08AM on Wednesday morning, I received the following from AlertDC (sign up here!)

National Weather Service has issued a Winter Weather Advisory from 10AM to 4AM Thursday morning. A mix of rain, sleet, snow to start becoming all snow during the mid to later afternoon. Accumulations of 3 to 5 inches or expected. precipitation is expected to change to all snow by late afternoon with the heaviest of snowfall is expected between 4PM and midnight. Temperatures in the mid 30’s with a northwest winds 10 to 15 MPH.

This is almost precisely what happened.

At 11:00 AM on Wednesday AlertDC — provided free-of-charge to your hand-held or other digital device by the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency — added a sense of urgency:

National Weather Service issued Winter Storm Warning until 4:00 AM Thursday for the Metropolitan Area (including District of Columbia). Precipitation of snow, heavy snow at times late in the afternoon hours. Expected accumulations of 5 to 10 inches of snow.

The same message was being shouted aloud by every radio and TV station.  I wanted to stay where I was Wednesday morning.  But I could not re-calendar a critical meeting.  I was able to shift the time and place to allow me to drive in, park, and absolutely plan to not drive anywhere — even a few blocks — after 3:00.

What happened on Wednesday afternoon is the urban core evacuated into the heart of the storm.  Look at the weather data posted below (thanks to Weather Underground).  At precisely the time the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management gave what was, in effect, an evacuation order the temperature fell and the precipitation spiked.   The federal enclave was evacuating directly into the plume… fortunately this time it was only ice and snow.

In the vast majority of threat scenarios shelter-in-place should be our default.  We should plan, prepare, and train for shelter-in-place.  We should plan, prepare, and train individuals to access pertinent information, consider the entire context, and make decisions that match their considered priorities, the context, and a full range of options.  Evacuation is often a bad option. That’s the lesson to be learned from Wednesday.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 28, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

Actaully I think it argues for telecommuting and video conferencing not shelter-in-place. Although perhaps free overnight accomodations might be a nice gesture by the travel hosting community in DC that provides almost nothing to the community throughout the year but acts as though its location is a divine right.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 28, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

Bill, I would have preferred to “telecommute” on Wednesday morning. This is how I do most of my work most days. Reconceiving the workplace clearly is relevant.

But the critical meeting that moved me into the storm is also relevant. It was a face-to-face — long delayed and often postponed — with a comparatively new colleague. As it turned out it was one of the most creative and productive 80 minutes I have had in a long-time… and the same outcomes would not have emerged from the very best HD video conference.

Given our social nature we will continue to come together in concentrations at some distance from our homes. Deciding how and when the concentration stays or goes — especially when a hazard is at hand — is a tough decision. We pay lots of attention to go. I think we need to give more to when and how we should stay.

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 28, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

Well bring your snowshoes next time!

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

January 29, 2011 @ 7:11 am

It also can be viwed as a failure of individuals taking appropriate preparedness measures and not displaying personal resilience!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 29, 2011 @ 7:44 am

Claire, I absolutely agree.

It does not contribute to resilience when we immediately seek to blame “those in authority” when there is pain and suffering. This tendency encourages dependence and discourages resilience.

No doubt the after-action for Wednesday will uncover important lessons for the public safety and emergency management communities.

But, in this case, we were dealing with an observable event, with significant notice, involving a community with the experience to make appropriate judgments. In too many cases we seem to have evidence of the community not paying attention to their context and failing to exercise explicit judgment.

Perhaps I am working too hard to make a pedantic point, but I at least wonder if one of the reasons so many individuals did not adjust to observable conditions is their habituation to evacuation. Most of this habituation comes from the habits of daily commuting. This habit is reinforced by the typically excellent work of transportation officials and others to facilitate the daily commute. This habit is also reinforced by the long-time work of emergency management to focus on urban evacuation.

The other option is to stay-put-where-you-are because going anywhere right now increases your risk. This is an option and message I think we too seldom highlight.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

January 29, 2011 @ 9:40 am

Actually, I think the problem here is the credibility of the media meteorologists. Since the last 3 storms did not hit this area directly, and the media tend to hype all potential storms, folks just tuned out.

I still think it is a personal matter to review weather forecasts and make decisions re commuting and traveling. And when it does snow, the municipalities ask for federal assistance for snow removal. How will we ever achieve resilience at regional and national level, when it does not occur at the personal and local level?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 29, 2011 @ 9:56 am

So… like hurricane risk denial in South Florida, the National Capital Region is developing a tendency to snow-and-ice denial… interesting point. In any case, we each end up emphasizing the role of personal resilience.

Comment by Potomac

January 29, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

Claire’s comment of meteorologist fatigue is spot-on as far as the behavior of individuals.

One aspect not addressed in several comments is the failure of the NCR’s senior leadership (local, state and federal) to coordinate and operationalize specific instructions for folks in the region and to make decisions on resource allocation. Every city and county does its own thing on its own accord; despite coordination structures that have been established such as the DC Metro Council of Governments or the DHS Office of National Capital Region Coordination, which have become default policy forums, but are not operational in nature. Maybe its time to consider an operational construct for the NCR.

Add on tight budgets in the area, the storm timing at the end of the day; a lot of bad drivers making bad decisions, officials that provided limited instructions via media, the pain of the FEMA reimbursement process for snowmaggedon 2010 for the locals, and I think everyone adopted a let’s wait-and-see rather than a lean-forward approach.

The result is that all the local and state officials default to looking out for their own communities, rather than taking a regional approach; so much for E pluribus unum.

All that said, it was a snowstorm, not an existential threat to the NCR, and reinforces belief among a lot of locals in the area that the pressure for “evacuation” is an overstated need going back to the post-Katrina one-model-fits-every-city approach that the federal government loves to impose. The NCR evacuates itself everyday in the worse rush hour in the country. And on occasion, we do it even more badly than usual, this was one of those occasions.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 30, 2011 @ 6:31 am

Claire, Bill, Potomac, and others:

In the unlikely event that any of you are still looking in, what would you make of this “syllogism:”

If I am Risk-aware, and
I accept personal Responsibility for my situation, and
I am in meaningful Relationships with others,
Then I am more likely to be Resilient.

What I hear/read in your comments regarding last Wednesday’s event is some deficiency in Risk-awareness and a major deficit in terms of personal Responsibility. Is this an accurate take-away?


Comment by Potomac

January 31, 2011 @ 8:26 am

Phil, a fair take away, though the governments didn’t do their full share in living up to their responsibility for maintaining “risk awareness” (situation status), nor taking leadership responsibility.

Good overview in Wash Post today…


Comment by Arnold Bogis

January 31, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

In the even more unlikely event anyone is still checking this string, I’d like to jump in to disagree with much of the resilience argument as presented up to this point. (Though I would like to note I agree with the points made about needing to coordinate on a regional level.)

From the bottom up: I think there is a problem with this assumption that people in the District and surrounding metro region have a great deal of latitude in deciding whether and what time to travel. Since this event was forecast to be a large, though not significant or huge, snow event the federal government and large private/public institutions did not close for the day. Though I don’t have figures, I would venture to guess that the majority of the commuting public cannot set their own hours or have the option to telecommute when necessary. So even if they looked at the weather report and wished they could leave early, doing so would put their jobs in jeopardy.

In terms of sheltering-in-place, again one must remember this was a snow event. With no obvious and direct threat to one’s health or safety, I would again guess that many of the people commuting on that night had family obligations that could not be put off (something to consider during a real catastrophe), such as picking up kids at day care or tending to them after school. If the day care isn’t going to shelter the kids, what options exist for the parents but to travel?

In terms of information, since they couldn’t decide themselves when to leave or to stay, what information would have been useful in this case? Again, this isn’t a hurricane or dirty bomb. I’m sure many realized the commute would be worse than usual, but didn’t expect it to be borderline catastrophic.

In terms of resilience in general, I think I think that if we begin making judgments on a community’s resilience after such an event as this, the term will quickly lose meaning. Is one to assume that people in DC are less resilient than those in Boston because of the way they handle a snow event (though something similar occurred several years ago with an expected storm unexpectedly strengthened and the state sent their workers home early and urged everyone else to do the same, dumping the entire commuting public on the roads at pretty much the exact same time)? And those in Atlanta even less so? Switching seasons, I would think a cat 1 storm would have a greater impact on Boston than Miami…

There is also the important role that government does play in dense urban environments. The storm that disrupted Atlanta for a week actually strengthened before reaching Boston, but had a fraction of the impact. That might have something to do with the fact that Atlanta has on the order of 10 pieces of snow removal equipment while Boston has 1000.

Obviously it is a lot more complicated than this, but I wanted to throw out a few thoughts regarding this before the next storm this week. I think resilience is a concept already stuck in a conceptual snow bank. It might not be advantageous to “gun” the concept for every event lest we dig ourselves deeper…(okay, that analogy really didn’t work…).

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 1, 2011 @ 8:04 am


Thanks. You have helpfully reminded me that generalizations have limitations. But I think you and I will still end up disagreeing.

Government has a role to play. There is evidence that last Wednesday several arms of government — local, state, regional, and federal — were not operating at optimal.

The personal practicalities you outline are real. Still… I would argue it is up to each of us to choose, to be as mindful as possible in our choosing, and to take personal responsibility for choosing. I chose — against my better judgment — to drive into the storm. But I also recognized what I was choosing and made some conscious adjustments to manage the risk I was taking… and extending to others.

In this specific instance, last Wednesday afternoon even if I had been oblivious to every other signal and warning, when I walked out of a meeting about 3:30 I would have thought, “This rain is going to change to ice or snow as soon as the sun sets. Traffic will be horrific. I am not going to subject myself or others to the risk of me adding to that traffic.” I would have stayed-put.

If everyone who could have joined me in that decision had done so, the situation would have been much better for everyone who could not… and for the snow and ice removal teams who were deployed.

But to your point, I will agree that just as every-disaster-is-local, resilience-is-risk-specific. What was the right decision last Wednesday might be different this Wednesday. In each case it depends on the context and the individual situation of the decision-maker.


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February 4, 2011 @ 12:16 am

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