- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

If terrorists strike the District, hundreds of thousands of people could be forced to walk out of the city under one of several emergency evacuation plans proposed by Metro General Manager Richard A. White.

“We have to come up with pre-decided strategies to limit vehicular use,” Mr. White said yesterday. “This isn’t about moving cars. It’s about moving people.”

Mr. White made his comments after a presentation to the Metro Board of Directors’ safety committee on last month’s emergency-response exercise that pinpointed “gaps in regional decision-making and communication.” All local-transit providers, state transportation departments, law enforcement, emergency-response and transportation agencies participated in the exercise.

Mr. White said that unlike emergency management agencies, which after September 11 worked to coordinate their responses to an attack, regional transportation agencies have yet to do the same.

The Council of Governments (COG) has created a virtual command center, which can coordinate federal, state and local agencies, said Dave Snyder, the COG’s chairman of the emergency-transportation group.

But too often regional agencies, intent on solving their own problems during an emergency, have not recognized the need to work with one another, Mr. White said.

An example of this problem is the three days of traffic problems that occurred when a tobacco farmer from North Carolina drove his tractor onto the Mall in March and told police he had a bomb. The farmer’s threats led authorities to shut down Constitution Avenue NW, a crucial east-west thoroughfare.

Mr. White said that with the governments of Virginia, Maryland and the District involved — along with the federal government and several counties — cutting gridlock is a major challenge because “no one is in charge.”

“We’re prepared on paper but not on an operational level,” Mr. White said. “How do we in the first moments, … make the best decisions so this town doesn’t become totally gridlocked?”

“The transportation network is so fragile on a good day. Then with a couple incidents, rush hour is extended a couple hours. God forbid you throw an incident on top of that. I wake up in a cold sweat regularly, thinking, ‘How bad is it going to be?’” he said. “We can’t wait until the next major incident to wake everybody up.”

Mr. White said more coordination is needed among local governments to come up with an evacuation plan that would help ease gridlock and other transportation problems during an emergency.

He said people need to prepare for the possibility of leaving the District on foot if an attack occurs. The District’s population of 572,000 swells when 1.75 million workers and tourists arrive on an average workday.

Other solutions include asking people to ride buses or carpool home so that emergency vehicles could get through on evacuation routes and major thoroughfares. Locking downtown parking garages to prevent people from taking their cars out was also mentioned among the solutions.

Mr. White did not offer details on how this plan would be enforced.

Mr. Snyder said the COG’s emergency-response plans recognize that in many emergencies, it is not necessary, and counterproductive, for people in the city to try to get out.

“The transportation system can’t handle a lot of people trying to use it that don’t need to,” Mr. Snyder said. “Most terrorist scenarios would be localized in their effect, and people who don’t need to move, if they get out on the highways, will be denying the roads to first responders who need to get to the scene.”

The most urgent problem now, however, is finding a way that all regional agencies can work together efficiently, Mr. White said. “This region is so complex, and there is no governor of the Potomac region. We need to do a faster job of coordinating responses at a regional level,” he said.

Yesterday’s report suggested that regional operations centers must communicate more quickly, more often and more openly with one another.

“Transit providers have a lot of work to do to work together,” said Carol Kachadoorian, Metro’s executive assistant for rail service. “You can’t figure out during the crisis, ‘Oh, what do I need to do?’ You have a window of time, then that window snaps shut and you have gridlock.”

Mr. Snyder said his goal is to create a database that has a pre-designed response for any kind of incident, “to choreograph the actions of every agency at every level of government, so that when an incident occurs you can go into this database and have a predetermined set of responses.”

“By the second anniversary of 9/11, we need to be much further along than we are now,” Mr. White said.

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