[from September 2003 issue]


Prepared for what? For terrorism here, and not necessarily just down around the Federal Triangle. What about the neighborhoods? That horrendous café homicide bombing in West Jerusalem recently occurred in a nice middle-class neighborhood, on a street not unlike 17th, or P or 19th behind Connecticut Avenue. Deranged persons who have no life and have been brainwashed to believe they will be somehow rewarded by a hideous, vengeful deity are not confined to faraway dusty climes. They are also here in the good ‘ole USofA--and this assertion is based on much more than the scary pronouncements from the Attorney General; to believe otherwise is to be in serious denial.

So, as we type out these words on the very day of the second anniversary of the that fateful 9-11, we also recall that back then we raised this very question, wondering if our city’s public safety bureaucracy really was developing a plan and thinking about how to engage all residents in gearing up to be prepared to act rationally to save themselves and help their neighbors in the event of attacks of any terrible kind.

We urged city officials charged with these matters to seriously consider the excellent idea of Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Bob Meehan that there be organized a coordinated undertaking whereby residents would be assisted in creating self-help teams on their own blocks, with each block group knowing which neighbor had what tools and/or emergency equipment, who was regularly at home during the days (and in our part of DC that’s great numbers of individuals who work from home offices), cell phone numbers and other ways to establish contact, etc.

And, while about a year ago it seemed that the city’s Office of Emergency Management was moving in that direction with several neighborhood cluster meetings, the reality was that they were mostly bureaucrats intoning about their programs, but not really producing any discernable action plans. Oh, yes, they solicited ideas, but we’ve heard nothing further, seen no bulletins under the doors or hung from doorknobs that would instruct what to do and where to go (or not go, especially in a biological or chemical attack when the safest thing might be to shut the windows tight and stay inside; but how many people really understand that?).

We once took a look at the emergency management agency’s website (they seem to think that everyone in DC has a computer by their bedside). There was some useful information posted on it, but that kind of information needs to be available in booklet form next to the phone in the kitchen or on the nightstand--that’s where people will be heading at the first sign of danger, not trying to boot up their computer.

Also, about the time the city put up those silly things that look more like tourist direction markers rather than the evacuation route signs they are supposed to be (but they don’t want to scare us), we decided to see if we could determine what route to follow from Dupont Circle or one of the other neighborhoods below Florida Avenue between Rock Creek and North Capitol Street. So, we again went to the website where, we had been told, there was a precise map showing emergency evacuation routes. While it is true there was a map, it really gave no clue which streets one should plan to use to get to those northward-leading routes. Would they want us to use Q Street, P Street, Florida Avenue? The color-coded lines that should have been there were only shown on the main routes leading north. Bottom line: not helpful, and when push comes to shove there is sure to be mass shoving; it will be chaos. We even recall Chief Ramsay being quoted to that affect many months ago. No confidence builder he!

But there’s an even more serious omission with the planning (if it can even be called planning). That has to do with the question of not only will the private cars cause deadly gridlock (and there seems to be no effort to even pre-arrange block-by-block carpooling for neighbors--another aspect of the Meehan idea), but clearly no provision that we know of about how to evacuate the vast numbers of citizens who do not even have cars. Are they supposed to walk out to a bus stop and wait for the number 42 or the L-4? Will there be any plan to have busses and other vehicles (such as trucks that could be pre-arranged with volunteers) assigned to pick up persons at pre-designated staging points?

Well, the thoughts do tumble out and we do not want to leave the impression that we’ve become crazed over this business. The point of tossing these thoughts out is only for the point of emphasizing the fact that there really isn’t any highly developed, coordinated plan by officials to engage the average resident in preparing for an attack. We need a system of block wardens (Remember the air raid wardens we had in every city and town during World War II? That wasn’t left to chance; municipal governments were very effective in organizing the civilians so that they could be prepared for the worst.) In today’s world there are two models that come to mind that DC officials should emulate: Israeli civil defense preparedness and Japanese earthquake preparedness.

It’s time to wake up and get cracking--Now!