[from September 2005 issue]


Hurricane Katrina, we sincerely hope, may have taught our government officials some important things that they will seriously take into account during what we urge be a thorough re-evaluation of the city's planning for true disaster.

Let's forget for a moment that this is also the national capital -- just focus on our city's real residents and its local cultures. In many ways, we share with the citizens of New Orleans much in the way of emotional ties to neighbors and neighborhoods (we're talking about the unheralded majority of our residents who have lived here for countless years, not the here today gone tomorrow passers-through). We value our beautiful neighborhoods as well as our funky neighborhoods; we value our architecture and our local history. Maybe it's not as "exotic" as down there, but it evokes strong emotions nevertheless.

So, as we watch through the magic of television the pain and suffering of the survivors and as we think about the thousands who could have been saved if the proper plans were in place and implemented, we think of how a catastrophe of like proportion would affect us here and worry that maybe here, also, our governments will not be up to the challenge of coping. Oh, the feds will make sure all the Big Boys are safe, and from what we have discerned during the past couple of years, it seems to us that the District's officials are more focused on protecting the federal interests than protecting us "little people." So, maybe as Fox News' Bill O'Reilly (of The O'Reilly Factor "no-spin zone" program fame) opined the other day, we really cannot count on government to look out for us. If that is to be the case, at least let the officials be honest with us and help us do a better job to prepare individually and amongst neighbors well in advance of disaster.

As we have noted in this space on more than one occasion, we are not convinced that the city's emergency preparedness office and/or other agencies working with them, have done any meaningful outreach into the neighborhoods in an effort to assist residents, block by block, to be ready to effectively assist each other. True, the city brought in some fancy outside consulting firm to hold some Ward meetings last year, but those were not very useful; they consisted mostly of bureaucrats telling people how the agencies are getting ready to respond, etc. But those were just mass meetings held, for the most part, far removed from the actual neighborhoods of most residents (except for those who happened to live within a few blocks of the small number of selected meeting sites.

What is needed is to develop a system of block captains like was done here during the Second World War, to use the advisory neighborhood commissions and their elected single member district commissioners (each of whom is answerable to approximately 2,000 neighbors) as the focal points for information, training and co-ordination block by block.

In a news story we ran three summers ago ("City Sees Neighborhood Planning for Self-Help Key in Terrorist Hits," August 2002, page 1), we reported comments made to us by long-time Dupont Circle resident (and a member of the very first elected ANC following the inception of the ANC system) in which she expressed her concern that the city's plans were outdated and might not be effective in the face of a terrorist incident. She went on to say, "We need to bring this city up to a point where we could handle something like that . . . each neighborhood needs some pre-emptive planning, including what assets and liabilities each neighborhood has." She worried that there was a lack of community involvement on the part of the Office of Emergency Management that it ought to start correcting that with the help of a citizens advisory board.

Her husband Bob, currently representing her old ANC district, suggested to us at the time that what is needed, block by block, is for everyone to know who has ladders and who has what kinds of tools and first aid, and who is usually home during the day with quick access to a vehicle, etc.

We have not seen any evidence in the ensuing years of much change in this regard; certainly we know nothing of a citizens advisory panel or of any coordinated outreach to bring training to the block level where it is most needed, nor have we heard of any initiatives that might be useful to assist neighbors in systematically organizing the kind of information and response capabilities suggested by the Meehans. We think this is the kind of priority that must be directed to the "grassroots" without further delay.