Two unrelated traffic accidents within an hour of each other yesterday in Northeast shut down two major highways during the busy morning commute, causing massive gridlock and seemingly endless delays — but also providing an ominous warning: What if it had been a terrorist attack?
The Bush administration has spent $2 billion to protect the city since the September 11 attacks — assigning law-enforcement personnel, rerouting traffic and erecting barriers — and countless millions have been disbursed by state and local governments to avoid a gridlock catastrophe in the event of another attack.
But the prospect of being able to get either in or out of the city without being caught in a massive traffic jam remains in doubt in the event of an incident or the evacuation of government buildings.
Even the agencies assigned the task of responding to a terrorist attack could contribute to the problem: A Code Red declaration by the Department of Homeland Security — meaning that an attack was imminent or had taken place — could result in an immediate lockdown of public and government facilities and restrictions on public travel.
Under the direction of Homeland Security, emergency personnel and equipment would need to be directed to the area, transportation systems would be “redirected or constrained,” and public and government facilities could be closed.
Although the department’s definition of Code Red and what protective measures would be required if it were instituted are vague, redirected or constrained means roads, bridges and tunnels could be closed, and airports and train stations could be shut down or limited.
“No plan is perfect and responding to these kinds of situations is a work in progress,” said Natalie Jones Best, emergency preparedness and risk manager for the D.C. Department of Transportation. “But we have developed multiple response plans, identified emergency routes and come up with contingency plans to manage traffic in the event of an emergency.
“An incident like the one that occurred this morning, although unfortunate, gives us the opportunity to take a look at those plans and go back and make changes if necessary,” Ms. Jones Best said. “It puts us in a position of being able to better manage our resources and strengthen our response.”
Homeland Security officials did not return calls yesterday for comment.
Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the main commuter routes in the Washington area operate at maximum capacity, leaving almost no alternative if one becomes blocked because of an accident.
“Add a major incident that takes away a major commuter route and it doesn’t mean that everything slows down. It means that everything stops,” Mr. Anderson said.
Gridlock is not uncommon in the D.C. area because of incidents involving national security or other law-enforcement concerns, dating to at least 1998, when an Alexandria man threatened to jump off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and stopped traffic for more than five hours. D.C. police shot him in the leg with a beanbag bullet and he jumped into the water. The man survived, but the incident backed up Beltway traffic for more than 20 miles.
In March 2003, Dwight Ware Watson, dubbed the “Tractor Man,” brought much of Washington to a standstill when he decided to protest tobacco-subsidy cuts by driving a tractor into a Constitution Gardens pond on the Mall. U.S. Park Police cordoned off the area from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. The federal government emptied several nearby offices and closed off major traffic arteries. Over the two days of the siege, four consecutive D.C. rush hours saw massive traffic jams.
Major evacuations of federal buildings in the District also have been prompted by suspicious events, forcing an exodus out of the city. In 2005, a pilot’s errant flight into restricted D.C. airspace May 11 prompted evacuation of the White House, the U.S. Capitol and the Senate and House office buildings, but also exposed a breakdown in communications between federal agencies and city officials, who did not know about the evacuation because they had disconnected a communications line between the Federal Aviation Administration and the Metropolitan Police Department.
After 24,000 military personnel and civilians who work at the Pentagon were evacuated on September 11, along with much of official Washington, highway gridlock took over in the nation’s capital. Police also cleared the Capitol and all House and Senate office buildings, and the drive out of the city took hours.
Ms. Jones Best said she was “caught” in yesterday’s traffic jam but managed to find a detour by listening to the radio — saying the ability of government to get timely information to the public was “key” in being able to manage any crisis situation. She said that safety is “always our top concern” and that law-enforcement personnel and other first responders can determine “hot spots” and divert traffic to other areas.
Randall J. Larsen, director of the Virginia-based Institute for Homeland Security, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit research organization, yesterday questioned the rush by federal, state and local governments to evacuate the city in a terrorist attack. He said that there may not be any reason to leave and that finding “shelter in place” — a small, interior room with no or few windows — could be a better option.
“Other than a hurricane, why would you need an evacuation plan?” asked Mr. Larsen, a retired Air Force colonel and originator of the first graduate course on homeland security at the National War College. “If it’s a nuclear attack, forget it. A chemical attack, you don’t have to go that far. I see no need to have all these evacuation plans.”
Mr. Larsen also said federal, state and local governments have to first decide when an evacuation is actually necessary and then be able to coordinate that effort with each other and with hundreds of responding law-enforcement officers. He called it a difficult task, noting that 20 local governments make up the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments alone, along with “a lot” of federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies.
“One of the major problems for the D.C. region and the Department of Homeland Security in general has always been, ‘Who’s in charge?’” he said. “Just who orders an evacuation, when and why? They are all difficult questions.”
Ms. Jones Best said the question of who’s in charge depends on where an incident occurs.
“Locals are always the first responders and are in charge until the situation dictates otherwise,” she said. “We’ve held a number of exercises and met the people we need to talk with. A process is in place, and it establishes a clear liaison to FEMA.”
Can the Federal Emergency Management Agency do the job in the wake of criticism for its handling of Hurricane Katrina?
“I think FEMA recognizes that it has gaps and is working to improve,” she said.