[from August 2004 issue]


And we didn’t mean for Hurricane Charlie which, as we wrote this was closely on the heels of Tropical Storm Bonnie, both of which were making a beeline for Dupont Circle. No, we mean bigger and worse: Terrorists.

When we contemplate the report of Curtis H. Marshall, whose very recent letter printed in The Washington Post detailing his experience with 911 when he attempted to do exactly what Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has urged all of us to do--to be alert to suspicious activity and report same, Mr. Marshall’s efforts were for naught.

What he recounted would have been hilarious if it had been a Marx brothers skit, but with it being terrorists waiting in the wings and not another vaudeville act, this was not funny. What we learned was that he spotted a man standing on the Virginia side of the 14th Street Bridge videotaping planes on their approach to National Airport. Wouldn’t most people be concerned about that? Who was that man and what was he up to?

So, Mr. Marshall tried to do the prudent thing--he attempted to call in a report to police, but kept getting shunted from one place to another, from DC to Montgomery County (don’t even try to guess why there!) and finally to Arlington. But by the time he succeeded in getting somebody to take his report and by the time a police car finally went to investigate, the video guy was long gone. Thankfully, it was just a video camera he was holding and not a shoulder-mounted stinger missile. But why was he filming? We’ll never know.

Clearly, there is something terribly amiss.

What is apparent is that there still isn’t sufficient basic inter-jurisdictional co-ordination to make quick and useful action possible. Even the Homeland Security department recognized way back last year that the unique political and governmental arrangements here in the Washington metro region called for a high-level federal official to be responsible for coordinating efforts between not only the feds but all the local jurisdictions. Yet, it would seem that there is a long way to go, at least based on the experience of a citizen who couldn’t even get hold of an emergency call center where they would know how to respond in an instant to a possible terrorism event.

Here in DC we do discern some improvements, but only some; too much seems to be in limbo. While we do applaud the DC Office of Emergency Management for implementing its new “AlertDC” automated telephone and text messaging systems which appear to have been very carefully thought out and made quite easy to sign up for, we continue to be distressed that there is really very little guidance available to individual citizens as to specific actions to take in specific emergencies.

Yes, it is true that last year there was some sort of pamphlet made available, but it dealt too much in generalities and really wasn’t the kind of instruction booklet that might make a difference when it would matter. And, when we do go to the DC government website to find information on what to do and how, it’s actually not so easy to find the right place. The home page is overly cluttered and one really doesn’t know exactly which tab to click to get to the right spot; there ought to be a big red “button” right there that has the words “emergency prep” and to be able to link into the right place without fumbling around. This may seem like a petty objection, but we are sure that if something terribly frightening--or worse--suddenly happens, people will be too discombobulated to easily click here and there to try to find DDOT’s emergency evacuation routes map (which they euphemistically label “Event Routes”).

And when (or if) they do, it won’t be too helpful. While it clearly marks main thoroughfares like Wisconsin, Connecticut, 16th, Georgia, Rhode Island, New York, one is left wondering about why not streets like 13th which one might assume would be quickly turned into outbound only. Or, why--and this really does bother residents of close-in neighborhoods like Dupont, Logan, Shaw, Adams Morgan, to name but a few--are there no emergency connector routes designated so that residents in crowded neighborhoods like those will have an idea of what might be passable to get from one side of a neighborhood to another so that they might even be able to quickly access the main “event” thoroughfares?

We raised this question in this space over a year ago (see, “If 100,000 New People Move Into DC Will They be Safe?,” February 2003, page 3), but apparently to no avail. We also raised questions about the lack of any meaningful program to establish a “block captain” system to facilitate neighbor-to-neighbor co-ordination and assistance where it will be most urgent when things go Boom. Why are we not preparing as was done so effectively in this very city during World War II? These are but two sets of concerns that we share with so many of the residents living downtown; there are more, but space does not allow the litany to continue at this time.