The Washington Post Editorial Board took time off from calling for further U.S. involvement in Middle East quagmires to bring some attention to the continuing problems of coordination and cooperation in the National Capital Region (i.e. Washington, DC and all the surrounding areas located in various states where much of the population has ties to the Capital):
The D.C. Council and a House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee held separate hearings that reviewed the response to the earthquake that shook the region in August. “Everyone did the wrong thing,” council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said of the gridlock that occurred when workers, ill advisedly exiting buildings, tried to get home. In a separate hearing on Capitol Hill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that federal workers “literally had no idea what to do.” Sadly, the earthquake, which Ms. Norton aptly called “a perfect proxy for a terrorist attack,” was not the first time weaknesses have been revealed in the area’s response to an unexpected, rapidly developing situation.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time such sentiments have been expressed nor is it likely the last. The issue is not a simple one:
The mayor has the authority to order an evacuation from the city, but beyond that there is no single entity with authority to advise the public in a fast-moving emergency. Instead, there are 17 local jurisdictions and the federal government sharing information (to be sure, a good thing) but each able to call its own shots.
Identified as a concern following 9/11 (and I’m sure an issue raised before that event provided a bullhorn), there are officials, committees, papers, and government offices focused on finding solutions. One could argue that despite the attention paid there has not been enough attention paid. Or is it a question of quality and not quantity? The fact that particular aspects have to be addressed makes one’s head hurt:
The first message alert about the earthquake came nearly a half-hour after it occurred, and the message about what to do was mixed. Officials with the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency said they’ve taken steps to refine the messages and get them out sooner. In particular, they say, it’s likely they will advise people to stay put rather than to drive home because it’s clear that an area so congested on a routine day can’t manage a mass exodus.
(That last sentence indicates that maybe someone is listening to Phil who has made that exact point…). The notion of a regional authority able to make “the call” is not a bad one, but is it viable if modeled on incompatible systems?
A more sensible system, as we’ve pointed out before, is one in which there are designated, trained staff people to collect information, make decisions and inform the public. New York City has such a system. So does London.
The political and geographic terrain of the National Capital Region greatly differs from that of New York and London. Expected evacuation route destinations and decision-making authorities must be taken into account not only in tactical decisions of why, when, who, and how but also strategic constructions of why, when, who, and how. It is easier to repeat “regional working group!” and “cooperation!” and “New York City is awesome!” than wrestle with the reality of a city that does not have control over much of it’s real estate, budget, or even public safety authority.
Considering that even the National Capital Region frame of the issue is such a tough nut to crack, what can be reasonably expected when the problem is expanded to include municipalities further out which should expect to be affected by a truly catastrophic event? This applies not just for the greater Washington, DC region but for all major urban areas where the biggest players must ask “will you jump, and if so, how high are you able or willing to go” rather than simply bark orders.
Regional planning: too hard or too necessary?