FAIRFAX, Va. – Despite the best planning of emergency agencies, the Washington region could be gridlocked after a terrorist attack unless workers and residents keep their heads, officials said Tuesday at a disaster planning summit.
The officials, who included Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, said the region’s roads and public transportation systems cannot handle the crush of people they would face if the federal government shut down or people tried to rush home and pick up loved ones.
But they acknowledged that getting people to stay put and wait for instructions during an emergency could be tough.
“If the phone is down and your spouse is at work and your child is at school, it is human nature to get in your car and pick them up,” said Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger.
Ridge said local, city and state governments are preparing an integrated emergency response with his department — but that educating the public on what to do in a terrorist attack is the most important and most difficult part of disaster planning.
He told a crowd of government officials, first responders and citizens at the meeting at George Mason University that Washington is in more danger than other cities because it is the seat of power and a symbol of the United States.
“Certainly the possibility of an attack is high,” Ridge said.
In the event of a terrorist attack, a terrified public could quickly cripple the city, officials said. Electricity and telephones could go out. Metro would be swamped. And if federal workers poured into the streets, commuter routes out of Washington would be jammed from the city into Maryland and Virginia.
Educating the public before an attack and setting up an emergency plan is the only way to avoid this kind of pandemonium, Ridge said.
Schools need to lock down in the event of an attack and private industry and the federal government must develop emergency plans so workers do not flee into the streets, officials said. And most importantly, families need to have a plan so they are not outside searching for each other.
“If a family has a communication plan and they know their children are safe at school, it might change a parent’s reaction,” Manger said. “There is no sense getting stuck in traffic for four hours if the kids aren’t going anywhere.”
Manger said the public should not be under any illusion that emergency preparations will somehow make it possible to drive from the city into the suburbs after an attack.
“There is no such thing as an orderly evacuation. The roads are already at capacity during rush hour. Imagine it during an evacuation,” he said.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan said the Sept. 11 attacks, the sniper attacks and Hurricane Isabel have all showed how emergencies can paralyze the county. Traffic stalled on commuter roads during the 2001 terrorist attacks, for example, and when Hurricane Isabel knocked out power, it disabled traffic signals at hundreds of intersections, he said.
But the response to the sniper attacks showed that the separate regional governments can effectively control a public emergency when they work together, Duncan said.
Ridge said the mission of the Department of Homeland Security would be a success is half of all households had some kind of emergency preparation plan by the end of the year.
But Ridge added that while the region should be prepared for an attack, residents should not be paralyzed by the possibility.
“If I told you I sleep well in the Washington capital region would that be enough?” he asked, in response to a question about the region’s emergency preparations.
-30- CNS 02-24-04