Officials Respond to Criticism of Evacuation Preparedness
Under pressure from the federal government, the District and its suburbs are developing their most extensive evacuation plans since the Cold War -- mapping escape routes, stockpiling bedding for shelters and designating pickup points for people who don't have cars.
The area's preparations for major disasters were deemed "not sufficient" last year in a nationwide study by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The agency identified problems in coordinating response, evacuation, medical care and the release of information to the public during a terrorist attack or other emergency.
Since then, the capital and suburbs have engaged in a frenzy of planning. Officials are spending $1.4 million in federal grant money to create a regional evacuation plan, due out this fall. Northern Virginia recently drew up a detailed blueprint. The D.C. area has spent about $3 million in the past year on blankets, cots and prepared meals.
And the region's leaders are talking to West Virginia, Pennsylvania and other nearby states about how they could shelter Washington area residents during a crisis. Congress is expected to give the region millions of dollars in coming months for such planning.
"Not since the Cold War era . . . have you seen this level of aggressive focus" on catastrophic planning in the D.C. region, said George Foresman, who recently resigned as Homeland Security's undersecretary for preparedness.
But officials say that the region could face enormous problems in coping with a disaster. Local evacuation plans differ markedly. The District and Northern Virginia are working on scripts for a possible large-scale flight, but Prince George's County wants its residents to stay put. The District's plan is public, but Fairfax County won't release its version.
Many fear that the already strained highways and Metro system could be overwhelmed by a significant exodus. And, with 13 state and local governments in the region -- not to mention a host of federal agencies -- there are questions about who would decide what to tell panicky residents.
"There's no one really in charge," said David Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member who serves on the region's Emergency Preparedness Council. "To some extent, those evacuation plans are better than they've ever been. What's lacking is an overall decisional framework."
The D.C. region has struggled with planning for a catastrophe since the Soviet missile threat a half-century ago, alternatively drawing up evacuation plans and rejecting a mass exodus as impractical.
In 1955, about 15,000 government employees evacuated from Washington in an atomic bomb drill. But the exercise assumed a three-hour warning and 100,000 dead in the District.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Washington again drew up a hefty evacuation plan, which would turn 19 roads into one-way arteries out of town. But the plan focuses on flushing out the city center, not what would happen when people travel into Maryland or Virginia, said Edward D. Reiskin, the District's former deputy mayor in charge of public safety.
There was also little thought of evacuating the suburbs.
"We don't really see a huge need for it. So we never spent much time on it," said Mark Penn, Alexandria's emergency management director. In most disaster scenarios -- even chemical or biological incidents, he said -- residents would be safer at home rather than jamming highways and exposing themselves to possible fallout.
But Penn is putting the finishing touches on a mass-evacuation plan for Alexandria, one of several new local plans done in concert with the broader regional effort.
Such planning intensified after Homeland Security did a nationwide study in the wake of the chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina. The agency determined that the D.C. region met just 13 percent of the requirements for responding to a major disaster. The agency made it clear that cities and states receiving Homeland Security grants had to step up their preparations.
"Is it probable we'll ever totally evacuate the National Capital Region? No. But should we plan for that event, in case it happens? Absolutely," said Chris Geldart, the Homeland Security representative for the D.C. region. He has made catastrophic planning a priority.
The regional evacuation blueprint scheduled for completion in November is not a full-blown action plan. It provides an overview of local jurisdictions' plans and examines mutual-aid agreements, officials said.
The plan will provide a database with detailed information on evacuation routes and transfer points where pedestrians can take buses out of the area, said Katie McDonald, who is coordinating the regional project. Such pickup sites could include Metro parking lots, she said.
"Because those places have been selected ahead of time, it's one less thing to coordinate," said McDonald, who works for the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Bus drivers "will know where they need to go; other leaders and police chiefs will know where they need to position their people," she said.
The plan will also provide an inventory of shelters in the region that can accommodate people during a local evacuation. The Red Cross has been inspecting the shelters and has positioned 48 trailers in the area with cots and blankets bought with Homeland Security funds.
But the evacuation plan leaves many details to local governments -- which sometimes have widely varied policies.
For example, the District, Montgomery County and most of Northern Virginia are producing large-scale evacuation plans, but Prince George's is not.
"It would be a challenge if we had to evacuate that many people," said John Erzen, a spokesman for Prince George's, which has about 850,000 residents. "It would be a challenge to find someplace to put them. So we encourage people to shelter in place."
Another example: The District's evacuation plan is on its Web site. But Fairfax will not make its new plan public, said Merni Fitzgerald, a county spokeswoman.
"We don't want people to pre-assume" how a disaster would be handled, she said, explaining that officials might not use all shelters or evacuation routes in every emergency. Emergency preparedness experts said such secrecy could backfire.
"The idea you can wait until a disaster strikes [and] then tell people what to do flies in the face of everything we know about how to get successful responses in disasters," said Kathleen J. Tierney, director of the National Hazards Center at the University of Colorado.
Although crisis plans are rarely followed to the letter, she said, "at least people know there's a plan to improvise from."
Further complicating the region's planning efforts is the uncertain nature of the threats it could face. The D.C. area isn't as vulnerable to hurricanes as other parts of the country, for example, and terrorist attacks could take almost any shape -- warranting a full evacuation, a partial evacuation or none at all.
Officials say they're trying to keep plans flexible to cope with any situation.
"I can't tell you, 'If you live on North Oxford Street, you're going to go to this location' " in a disaster, said Robert P. Griffin Jr., Arlington County's emergency management director. He said that the county's plan will identify shelters that could be opened, depending on the location and nature of the event.
Foresman, the former federal official, said that worst-case disaster planning is important for cities and states because it can help them deal with smaller crises. He said that Homeland Security realized in its study last year that many governments had done little planning and training for catastrophes despite receiving millions of dollars from the agency in recent years.
"There was not sufficient attention being paid to what is arguably much less sexy than a new command post or bomb vehicle but equally as important: overall command-and-control, public alert and warning, decision-making mechanisms," said Foresman, who is a consultant.
But just having a plan is not enough. The U.S. Capitol Police had a long-standing evacuation plan Sept. 11, 2001, but it was not implemented.
Rehearsing a plan is "extremely important. And they have to be realistic practices," said Tierney, at the University of Colorado.
The District has practiced moving crowds along evacuation routes after July 4th fireworks celebrations at the Mall in recent years. But even Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has said that most people wouldn't recognize the city's evacuation designation -- a D.C. flag on certain street signs.
Many local officials say that the planning will help but that problems are inevitable in a mass evacuation, especially given the already crowded roads and mass transit.
"Human nature being what it is, we recognize this isn't going to be clean," Griffin said. "It's not going to be an orderly process."