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