Friday, September 07, 2007

Pennsylvania Avenue: The New Mason-Dixon Line?

Here's something most folks in the Washington area probably don't know: in the event of a major terror attack (or other event requiring evacuation of downtown D.C.), Pennsylvania Avenue will serve as the artificial dividing line between North and South.

Yes, take a look at the map in today's Post. No vehicles will be allowed to cross Pennsylvania Avenue. If you are south of the famous road, you'll be directed to evacuation routes south, east and west. If you find yourself on the northern side--where most of downtown Washington happens to be--then you'll be directed northward.

For Virginians who work downtown, this could be a real problem. Mrs. Curmudgeon parks in the garage of her building on K Street, north of Pa. Ave. So, if something happens, she's going to be forced into Maryland? (Fortunately, since we live in Arlington, she could walk home in about an hour, which will undoubtedly be faster than she could drive--anywhere--in a real evacuation. Other Virginians, however, don't live quite so close to downtown.)

[Query: since K Street goes UNDER Pennsylvania Ave. toward Georgetown, will there be an exception? Technically, that's not crossing over Pennsylvania Avenue.]

Of course, these evacuation plans are about as sound as those drawn up by New Orleans in advance of Hurricane Katrina. A few bureaucrats are forced to put something down on paper. They know it's not practical, but then practicality is "not their job." The roads leading out of downtown Washington cannot possibly accommodate an instant, massive evacuation on a regular workday. We learned that on 9/11 and the situation has only gotten worse since then (more cars, same roads).

True, planners did a "test" on the Fourth of July, concluding that it was possible to move hundreds of thousands out of downtown in a fairly short period of time. But that's not the way it works on a regular day in D.C. Most of the Independence Day revelers came in by Metro and left the same way. Many walked from nearby neighborhoods, like G'town, Foggy Bottom, Capitol Hill and the many new apartments in downtown. Relatively few drive in from the far 'burbs because there's little parking available.

In a real emergency, daily commuters would get into their cars in hundreds of parking garages around town and flood the streets--if they could get out of the garages, which aren't designed for everyone leaving all at once. In addition, those local residents who can walk to fireworks in July would suddenly be joining the outflow, adding to the vehicular burden.

Metro could handle pretty large crowds, but only if it was given some advance notice. Will Al Queda give them a courtesy call, telling Metro to get some extra trains ready? (You see, Metro knows that the fireworks will be done at 9:15 pm on July 4, and it has large trains ready to service just the right stations. That doesn't work in the middle of a regular workday.)

The biggest problem in most terror scenarios for Washington is panic. Most people will not be in danger and should simply stay put. That was certainly the case during 9/11, but there was sufficient misinformation that many felt in danger anyway. Yet, when everyone leaves in a blind panic, they are more likely to strand those few who may actually be in danger. A better "evacuation" plan would be one that allows emergency responders to PREVENT evacuation by those who don't need to, leaving routes open for those who do need to. Not easy, but a better goal than a plan on paper that has no possibility of working.

Here's our advice: unless danger is imminent, i.e., a toxic cloud is headed your way, stay put. Wait a couple hours and then leave, after the chaos is over.

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