Amanda Ripley

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Panic & Chaos in DC!

22nd Jul 2008 posted in Resilience

Since I live in DC, it was particularly painful to read this CQ interview with the DC Homeland Security Chief. It bothered me on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start.

But let’s start with panic. Check this out:

Q: Let’s talk about evacuation routes. You know what evacuation is like during rush hour. If I were a terrorist, I’d strike right during rush hour….Practically speaking, there is no evacuation possibility, is there?

A: Evacuation will be tough. I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise. And again, during a scenario like you proposed, there would be a lot of panic, a lot of chaos. I think that when word got out that it was a nuclear device, clearly people would be trying to get as far away from the detonation area as fast as they can. I don’t think there’s any question of that.

Oh Lord. First of all, no one in charge of a high-risk city (or any city) should predict panic in the event of a disaster. It is very rare. Much more rare than we expect, as I detail in the book. And even if it might happen, to predict it with certainty is the kind of fear-mongering that can do more harm than the actual panic. It encourages officials to keep life-saving information secret from the public (“Well, if they are going to panic, perhaps we should not tell them that it was a radiation event at all…?”).

Or, as veteran disaster expert Dennis Mileti told me: “Do you know how many Americans have died because someone thought they would panic if they gave them a warning? A lot.”

OK, let’s move on. The interview also showed that my city’s homeland security chief was not very good at communicating disaster response to a reporter. I’m not saying it’s easy. But he needs to get better at it. The worst outcome would be if he decided to just stop doing interviews. We need to hear from this guy—early and often. But he needs to learn how to break it down so that regular people can understand what he is talking about. The “Incident Command System” is not something most people understand.

Q: Who’s in charge during in a major emergency in the city?

A: Well, I think we all operate under the Incident Command system, to have consistency and commonality among different agencies at the federal, state and local level responding to an event.

So who’s in charge would depend on the event, and who we believe is most qualified agency-slash-person to lead that event. So it’s not just a matter of saying it’s a certain federal, state or local person, but who’s best qualified to handle that event. And it usually depends on who is first on the scene. The first person on the scene is the incident commander, until someone else comes on the scene, who’s most qualified. And that’s how the incident command is determined.

I asked my pal Eric Holdeman, who ran emergency services for Seattle and the surrounding area for many years, to take a look at the interview. His response is here, and it is sympathetic to the official—which is a helpful reminder of just how hard it can be to do these interviews.

Personally, I thought the CQ reporter focused way too much on the “gotcha” questions. “Who is in charge?” seems like a good question. And it is. But you can’t expect the answer to be a simple one. If a nuclear device ever goes off near the White House, as the reporter had hypothesized, regular people should not expect anyone to be “in charge” for a good, long while.

But I did think he was right to push the DC official to explain how exactly people are supposed to hear about evacuation plans. That is crucial.

Speaking of, when I went to the DC emergency planning site to type in my address and find my evacuation route, as the DC homeland security chief recommended in the interview… I couldn’t get it to work.

I tried two different browsers and several different addresses. If anyone else can get it to work, please let me know!

Otherwise, I just may panic.