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Residents at Risk; DC Agency Not Helping

In the wee hours of Friday, July 13th (hmmm …) a huge swathe of the city north of K Street west of 7th and New York Avenue all the way east to the District line suddenly had water flowing through the mains that was potentially contaminated, and as dawn came residents were opening their faucets totally unaware of potential serious health hazards for not only youngsters and the elderly but also for the sick, especially those with compromised immune systems.

As word was getting out, mostly through local TV early morning news and chit-chat shows, a chorus of outrage was growing louder and louder. By mid-morning phones in city council and mayoral offices were ringing off the hook.

Why, people were asking/complaining, didn’t HSEMA (short for the bureaucratically-named Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency) implement its automated cell phone alerts and reverse 911 landline calling protocols?

Instead, as the Washington Post reported the following Monday on the officials in charge defending their half-baked response, “they sent a boil-water advisory shortly after 4 a.m. to the small fraction of the city’s population who voluntarily signed up for D.C. emergency alerts, and publicized the problem on social media and with news coverage. (This writer, by the way, is one of those who are signed up for alerts; none was ever received at the time.)

As the Post further reported, HSEMA director Christopher Rodriguez “said his agency did its part to alert the public. ‘I would describe it as doing a great job. . . . We did it as quickly and efficiently as possible.’” No, you did not!

The article concluded with what the reporter heard to be a major concern, about how HSEMA mishandled the process of sending out the warnings, specifically through “a drawn-out trickle of warnings, some issued in the middle of the night on Twitter, that did not directly reach some affected people until more than 12 hours after the problem was detected.”

To us, this, along with the cavalier attitude expressed by the ones who we should be able to trust with our lives –- whether it be a public health emergency or an act of terrorism –- raises serious questions whether the District is truly ready to respond with alacrity based on competent pre-planning.

Actually, we have been concerned with this issue ever since the one-year anniversary of 9/11 when questioning if the District was truly prepared for the worst. Even way back then we were concerned with what seemed to us a lack of urgency in preparedness planning and communicating with residents.

And, again just 2 years later –- the third anniversary of 9/11, we were dismayed to have to conclude that we “[had] not seen any evidence in the ensuing years of much change.”

Yet again, 10 years plus a few months we found it necessary to address this topic once more, that time by asking, “Is DC better prepared to thwart terrorism than it was this month eight years ago?” Sadly, we had to conclude that “we [were] not especially confident about that” and ending our January 2011 editorial with the observation, “As we have asked previously and again ask, why are we not preparing as was done so effectively in this very city during World War II?”

Then there was the time of the huge power blackout in December 2014 that from the afternoon until well into the night affected a huge section of Dupont East. As with previous emergencies, residents were left in dark not just (in that case) by Pepco but by HSEMA, prompting us to editorially comment the following month, “The apparent failure of the AlertDC system to do any alerting was especially deserving of criticism. Nothing ever showed up in this writer’s email . . . Puzzling indeed given that the system pumps out multiple messages all day long alerting to minor traffic incidents, minor temporary street closings, and what-not.”

As we started off this commentary being no less critical of the city’s incompetence after all these 16 years in communicating emergency messages with residents, this was again dramatically revealed by one of its occasional email alerts later that morning:

“This is an important message from the District of Columbia AlertDC system. DC Water’s Boil Water Advisory remains in effect for parts of Washington, DC until further, new information from DC Water.”

Except for mentioning certain government buildings, pools, parks, and hospitals that were closed, there was nothing specific other than the mention of “new information from DC Water” – not even the agency’s phone number or its web address (URL). How stupid! In addition to including those minimal bits of information, why didn’t anyone at HSEMA even think it would have been very helpful to call attention to the excellent map prepared by DC Water — clearly and unambiguously (thanks to the work of a skilled graphic designer) – simply by including a live link to that map? How sad? What can we say? It’s distressing that we have to continue beating our typing fingers on a computer keyboard about all this. Maybe it’s hopeless and nothing will ever change.