- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) evacuation plan has some good points and some bad ones, too.

Among the laudatory proposals are the proposed creation of a biodefense network around Washington, and a tiered system of surveillance and alert for the detection of chemical or biological agents. Another good idea is the proposed Regional Incident Communications and Coordination System, designed to make it easier and faster for officials at the local, state and federal levels to coordinate and communicate with each other in the event disaster strikes. One of the biggest problems on September 11 was the confusion and disarray following the attack on the Pentagon. It took 10 hours just to arrange a regional teleconference for key decision-makers and, in the meantime, the public was given conflicting information about such things as school closings, evacuation protocols, and so on. The regional communications system would center around three hubs one each in the District, Maryland and Virginia and enable decision-makers to be in direct touch within 30-minutes. COG also is working on a new plan for emergency response including shelters and transportation for the public in the event that becomes necessary. Transit and school buses, including Metro vehicles, could be used in conjunction with rail transport to move large numbers of people out of the city quickly and safely.

This brings us to the one not-so-great idea contained in the 400-page plan super-carpooling. In an emergency whether it's terrorism or a natural disaster the COG plan envisions people opening their car doors to colleagues, fellow-travelers whomever then calmly making their way out of the city. But carpooling hasn't worked very well under normal circumstances; imagine how it would pan out in the moments after a terrorist attack. The orderly process of neighborly ride-sharing imagined by COG is not likely to coalesce. Instead, panic-stricken people are going to jump in their vehicles and try and get away (and home to their families) as fast as they can; making side trips to drop off passengers isn't going to be part of the plan. It's doubtful that people are going to worry too much about violating the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane restrictions on I-66 and I-395 as a mushroom cloud rises over the capital. A better approach would be to develop a way to maximize the movement of traffic and maintain order to the extent possible, perhaps by using law-enforcement and/or military personnel to guide vehicles through traffic choke points, such as major intersections and interchanges, etc. It also might be worthwhile to study the feasibility of reversing the eastbound lanes of I-66 and other major arteries to outbound traffic in the event of an emergency. Such a move would immediately double the carrying capacity of the area's transportation system.

That said, the overall plan envisioned by COG is sensible and long overdue. A coherent response to an emergency requires foresight and preparation, not after-the-fact scrambling around. Even if we manage to avoid another terrorist attack, it's almost certain we'll eventually have to deal with a major natural disaster of some sort such as a hurricane, for example. Having a proper, systematic means of dealing with such an eventuality could significantly lessen the human cost. And that's a goal well worth pursuing.

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