- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2005

I was in London a week ago when a friendly guide working for a double-decker bus company gave us detailed instructions on how to take the subway to a tourist destination across town.

I took one look at the aging subway’s entrance and decided I didn’t want to see the replica of the Globe Theatre bad enough to venture underground. We took an expensive ride in a black taxi instead. (In Paris, I’ll admit, I gave in to my feet and did the same thing.)

In fact, I’m growing to distrust subways in general since Washington’s Metro has become unreliable.

But yesterday, as I watched the chaos wrought by terrorist attacks on London’s transit system, my heart bled for the untold number of affected Londoners, who only a day earlier were reveling in being awarded the 2012 Olympic Games.

Metro’s chief executive officer, Richard A. White, may not be able to make the public-transit system work to its optimum for the region’s commuting public, but he’s right about one thing: The subway and bus bombings in London demonstrate that no amount of security can keep a mass-transit system in a major city from being targeted by terrorists.

Despite that hard truth, local and national officials cannot absolve themselves of their awesome responsibility to plan as best as they can to protect the public on buses, rails and subways to reduce loss of life.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a member of the House Homeland Security and Transportation committees, yesterday reiterated her call for passage of the Safe Trains Act to close the federal funding gap between aviation safety and ground transport.

“By not going further this late in the game, the administration has broken its 9/11 pledge to always take preventive action and never to be caught flat-footed again,” said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat who made the initial pitch a year ago.

Mrs. Norton said Congress last year authorized about $15 billion to secure aviation travel but only $400 million for public transportation security.

The Safe Trains Act calls for allocating $2.8 billion to rail safety over the next three years in a grant program to pay for minimum security necessities, including evacuation drills.

Speaking of evacuation drills, the one conducted by the D.C. government after Monday night’s fireworks was a show unto itself and left much to be desired regarding pedestrian and vehicle gridlock.

Still, it was an important step for D.C. officials to undertake to assess what improvements they must make in to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people during a genuine emergency.

It’s pathetically clear that escaping downtown Washington in a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or any time after 2 p.m. on any Friday during the summer mightily tests the preparedness skills of our transportation and law-enforcement officials.

These officials, as well as elected leaders, must take this moment in the wake of the London bombings to reassess their strategies and contingencies.

And the commuting public had better review their exit strategies and security measures as well.

When was the last time you dusted off your emergency kit? Or checked your water supply? Or reviewed the telephone tree you devised to contact loved ones should you become separated in a homeland attack?

On Tuesday, the national anti-poverty group the Community Action Partnership will hold its first terrorist training sessions aimed at helping D.C. leaders in low-income areas prepare residents on how to respond during an emergency.

One feature of the program, which identifies local responders and resources, involves role-playing during mock evacuations to show how poor planning can exacerbate an emergency.

Brian Peterkin-Vertanesian, vice president of the organization, said low-income residents are often “disconnected” and less aware of where to go, whom to call or what’s available during an emergency, and local leaders “need to take extra action” to help them.

Yesterday’s terrorist attack in London “makes it all the more important for people to begin to realize the full nature of what we face,” he said. “We can’t stop things from happening, but we can be better prepared when they do.”

Exactly. We can never know in advance whether we will be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But we should, with better planning and assistance from our leaders, prepare as best we can for the worst.

The Community Action Partnership’s training class will be held Tuesday, 9 a.m to 5 p.m., in the group’s office at 1100 17th St. NW, Suite 500. For more information, call 202/265-7546 or visit www.communityactionpartnership.org.

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