A few short weeks before the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9-11, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake in, around and hundreds of miles north of nation's capital, provided a glimpse into how well the United States has learned to cope with and respond to unanticipated and potentially catastrophic events. The verdict is in: not very well.
Fortunately, the extent of damage reported appears to be minimal. The most frequently reported are the cracks the earthquake left behind in the Washington Monument. These souvenirs have forced the closing of that iconic symbol of American freedom and strength for the foreseeable future. If we are wise, we will regard them as reminders of our continued vulnerability and force policy makers to take increased action to enhance the public safety.
When the memories of 9-11 were fresh, both the public and the private sector put into place workable evacuation plans. Owners and operators of buildings organized drills for their employees. Supervisors were designated on each floor, tasked with identifying the whereabouts of all within in their purview. Workers were asked to designate a place to go and a means to get there, in the event that circumstances compelled them to depart Washington. Very little of any of this was on public display on August 23, 2011. [See a slide show of 6 vulnerable terrorist targets.]
A few anecdotal observations:
On the short side of 2:00 p.m., I was finishing my lunch at an outside café in Dupont Circle. Suddenly a brief but intense rumble engulfed the restaurant. An intense silence ensued. After a few seconds, one man called out, "Not to worry. It is a minor earthquake. I am from Mexico. We have them all the time." The words of this would-be Good Samaritan had their intended calming effect.
Seconds later, people en masse began pouring out of stores and restaurants and onto the sidewalks. Soon there was no place to stand. Minutes passed. No one made any announcement of any kind. There was not a single policeman in sight. Instinct and memory told me there would be chaos on the roads and on the Metro system as people began to scramble to get home. Ill-advisedly, I crossed the street and descended to the Metro.
I did not take the stationery escalator either as a cautionary sign or as evidence that the system was not in service. Non-functioning escalators have become more or less the norm in a mass transit system that was once the envy of the country. (If ever there was a place where an expenditure of stimulus funds might do some demonstrable good it is here. The impression the system gives visitors from the world over is shameful.)
My concerns did grow when I encountered a member of Metro's security force, who, in response to my inquiry, told me that he had no idea whether the system was working. I jumped onto the first train, rode for one stop, and headed home. Other than a few books, which had fallen from their shelves, everything in the apartment remained as I had left it. It was then that I turned on the television and learned about the ensuing chaos that had befallen the rest of the city.
As had been the case on 9-11, there appeared to be no central command and control over movement of people and vehicles throughout the city. Harry Truman's legendary sign on his desk ("The buck stops here") to the contrary, Washington D.C. remains a city of "buck-passing." Individual offices were reported to have taken it upon themselves to announce when and whether to close. Rush hour sped up to 2:30 p.m., three hours earlier than usual. The Office of Personnel Management issued a formal recommendation that government offices close at 4:00 p.m. The press later reported that E-mails carrying the news did not reach employees until 4:30 p.m. [Read Susan Milligan: Earthquake Reaction Shows DC Unprepared for Terror Attack]
As had been true on 9-11, communications ranged from faulty to contradictory to nonexistent. No one in authority seemed prepared to instruct thousands of people what they should do or where they should go. Nor did anyone ask what sense it made to encourage, let alone allow, so many people to exit the city simultaneously, clogging roads, packing like cattle onto Metro cars, making it all the more difficult for emergency vehicles to make their way to destinations where they might be needed.
And reminiscent of 9-11, cell phones proved useless. One would have expected that in the intervening years, and with the nation engaged in at least two wars, either more towers would have been built or that technology would have found a way to expedite calls to certain exchanges, be they police departments, hospitals, or emergency control centers. Think again.
Most disturbing of all is the lack of urgency that still prevails within government entities charged with getting the rest of us to a better, and presumably, safer place. Today's Washington Post reports that, after 9-11, the interlocking networks of governments that comprise the greater Washington area agreed to formulate plans or an orderly exodus from the city should circumstances require it. The group is scheduled to submit its proposals to the Councils of Governments this fall. This fall? Let us give thanks that others were responsible for planning this country's response to Pearl Harbor.
Let us hope that the U. S. Congress does better. It was, after all, in session when a plane, transformed by terrorists into a missile, was heading its way. But for the heroism of its passengers, held hostage, Congress itself could well have been put out of business. The time may be at hand for it to hold both the executive branch and sub-national government into which it pours billions of taxpayer dollars to account.
Finally, a personal note: This month marks the first anniversary of this weekly entry to USNews.com. It also marks a period of interruption between me and my readers. A change in professional circumstances requires the suspension of this column for a period of time. I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to contribute to this space and hope readers found what i had to say of some value. I very much look forward to resuming these contributions at a time when other obligations allow. I wish all my readers well.