Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shake it, Baby!

Hey, East Coasters! Yesterday was fun, wasn’t it? Nothing like a little plate-tectonics to really ramp up the heart rate. Especially considering that, for at least a half-breath, everyone in my office wondered if we were experiencing a “man-made” incident. Thank goodness it was just Mother Earth having a hissy fit, eh?

Ironically, it’s been less than 24 hours since the shake-shake and already I’m burnt out on the news. Yes, it was a 5.9 earthquake and yes, we rarely get them on this coast. It was exciting, but rather than show the same broken spire from the National Cathedral, perhaps we should focus instead on, oh I dunno, our crummy emergency evacuation plans.

I’m looking at you, Washington DC.

For a city that hosts Congress, the White House, a ton of monuments, and hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, our ability to handle a “crisis” is pretty disappointing. Here are a few items that stood out after yesterday’s incident:

1)      Building emergency lighting that did not come on in a real emergency. Gotta have working generators, otherwise office personnel are stumbling over each other in the stairwell.
2)      Mass Transit: Some Metro stations were closed and the trains were running at 15 mph. I understand the need to check structural and track integrity, but this is where activating the fleet of Metro buses would have been key. The three blocks of people waiting to get on a bus that runs every 30 minutes meant a lot of people got home later than normal, despite being released early. Crisis management means having a back-up plan. In this case, we needed to get every bus possible on the road. This was especially critical because the majority of offices and parking garages were closed, so people could not access their cars.
3)      Roads: VDOT made the right call to remove HOV restrictions for Route 66 and the
Dulles Toll Road
. Opening those roads all the way helped decrease traffic. Other roads in the area needed to do this as well.
4)      Information Flow: Companies and government offices MUST do a better job to push information to their employees. Waiting till 7 in the morning to notify people about which buildings are open or closed is not good planning. Those employees are already in the city. Calls like that need to be made much earlier (remember Snowmaggedon, gang?).
5)      Leadership: This is a dove-tail off of Item 4. Good leaders make a call early and adapt as need be rather than waiting till the last minute because they don’t want to make a “wrong” decision. One thing I learned in my previous career is that, as a leader, the quickest way to get someone killed is to do nothing. And you have to keep your people informed, otherwise their fear and confusion will only cause more problems.
6)      The Internet: While cell and land-lines were slammed and completely unable to handle the load, the Internet became the champ for information. Apparently there were tweets on Twitter that reached New York 30 seconds before the quake arrived and people from Toronto to Atlanta were able to communicate that they were okay within seconds of the quake passing. Twitter also allowed people to instantly pass along photos of the devastation, like this Tweet from @scalzi*:

That being said, I will throw a major “kudos” to the folks who run my parking garage. They had people stationed all over the garage, controlling the traffic flow out of the single exit. It was an organized departure instead of the massive cluster it could have been.  I was also impressed to see several people in my building take charge in the absence of leadership. Good job.

Overall, I hope this will be an eye opening experience for the city and the people who work here. We have regular fire drills and piles of paperwork listing what to do in an emergency, but when something actually happens, it seems that people are caught completely off guard. I realize that no plan survives first contact with the enemy (who in this case, was the shifting of a fault line near Richmond), but inaction is not the right reaction. We follow a rehearsed plan (i.e. where to meet up after evacuating a building) or we develop a new one that will work. But between the recent snows and yesterday’s “crust merengue,” it’s obvious that when push comes to shove, our emergency actions plans are ineffective.  

*courtesy of retweets by @Papa_Kosh and @JRVogt. Also see

1 comment:

  1. I'm in New Hampshire and while I personally didn't feel anything (I blame the boredom coma my day job had lulled me into), a lot of other people I know around here felt the big quake.

    I don't know if you've seen this link or not but there are some funny pictures/captions to be found: