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Last month’s rush-hour snow storm was one for the record books — not for the volume of snow but for the hours it took commuters to get home. Stranded drivers blamed government officials for not coordinating better. We look at what worked, what didn’t — and how officials, businesses, and the public can all be better equipped for the next regional emergency.
- Millicent West Interim Director, DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency
- Neil Pedersen Administrator, Maryland State Highway Administration
- David Snyder Vice Mayor, Falls Church; member and former chairman, National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board; member of the Emergency Preparedness Council of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Where were you on the Wednesday afternoon last month when the freezing rain turned to sleet, turned to snow and crippled the evening commute? If you spent less than eight hours getting home that night, you won't even be nominated in the category of longest commute in a winter storm. But, since this is Washington, everyone is asking who's to blame for the rush-hour standstill. The federal government, which let workers out early? The city crews that didn't get the roads cleared fast enough? And shouldn't we have a regional plan in place to prevent this kind of transportation meltdown?
MR. KOJO NNAMDILast month's rush-hour storm is raising new questions about what the government, the private sector and the public can do to be better prepared for the next bad storm or for something worse. We discuss this at a time when there is currently both a thunderstorm and tornado watch in the area. And joining me in studio to talk about it is Millicent West, interim director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Millicent West, thank you for joining us.
MS. MILLICENT WESTThank you for having me today.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is David Snyder, vice president -- vice mayor of Falls Church. He's a member and former chair of the Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board and a member of its Emergency Preparedness Council. David Snyder, good to see you again.
MR. DAVID SNYDERGood afternoon to you and your listeners.
NNAMDIJoining us by telephone from Annapolis, Md., is Neil Pedersen. He is administrator of the Maryland State Highway Administration. Neil, thank you for joining us also.
MR. NEIL PEDERSENGood afternoon, Kojo. It's good to be with you.
NNAMDIGood to have you on. Millicent West, allow me to start with you. When there's at least an inch of snow in the forecast, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments apparently initiates a conference call amongst 17 local governments, the National Weather Service and the federal Office of Personnel Management. That call, it is my understanding, usually takes place around 3 a.m. On the morning of Jan. 26, that snowstorm, it was at 10 a.m. You were a participant on that call. What did you discuss, and what action was decided on?
WESTOn the 10 o'clock call -- and yes, normally, the calls do take place earlier in the morning. But, because this was a different type of event and followed an earlier morning event, it required a different level of planning. But, on the call, we discussed the condition of roads, the expectation that we would be able to as jurisdictions that do work very closely together handle any challenges that could occur. We wanted to make sure that all parties were informed about what we were currently experiencing and what we felt we would experience in the upcoming rush hour. And so, during that call, things like road conditions, the ability to clear the number of pieces of equipment that would be on the road and recommendations about next steps are made. But all of the folks were on the call.
NNAMDIRecommendations are made?
NNAMDIOnce snow starts falling and problems begin to arise, how do the different jurisdictions and different traffic and public safety agencies stay in touch with each other? I'll ask you all this but, first, starting with you, Millicent West.
WESTSure. There are a number of ways that we keep in contact with one another. First of all, all of us have emergency operation centers, and those specialists that work in those centers communicate regularly. They communicate when there's not an emergency, so they're making sure that they also communicate especially when there are things that would cause us to adjust our responses to incidents. But we do so by calling on the telephone. There are a number of different alerting systems that we use.
WESTThere are a number of different message boards, one called WebEOC that allows us to manage our situational awareness. There are several different opportunities that we have to communicate with each other, and it's incumbent upon us as individual jurisdictions to make sure that we're submitting information and that we're initiating those calls. But there are several systems that are in place. And there's redundancy built in to ensure that, when there is an emergency, we're able to communicate with each other.
NNAMDIDavid Snyder, anything you can add to that?
SNYDERThe difficulty is that, despite all of these good efforts by the transportation agencies, by the emergency management agencies, by police and fire agencies, what occurred this time has happened before in the region and will likely recur in the region...
NNAMDINo, don't say that.
SNYDER...without some structural changes to really address the fact that we've got to manage things much more tightly and manage them as a region, and we need to develop region-wide public messages and get them out to the public. For example, if a lot of folks were told early in this event that either you leave very early in the day or don't try to get out on the highways at 4 or 5 o'clock -- because what happened was you immediately got stuck in gridlock. And then the situation just deteriorated from there.
SNYDERLikewise, because the public was using the highways to such a great extent, the transportation agencies couldn't do their job. And police and fire were stretched beyond the breaking point. At the same time, ironically, Metro could have taken even more people than they were hauling at the time. Those messages simply didn't get out to the public.
NNAMDISpeaking of getting out to the public, this is a broadcast in which the public tends to be involved. You can do so by calling 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. If you were in charge of emergency planning, what's the first thing you would do? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Make your suggestion or ask your question there. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Neil Pedersen, one of the biggest traffic problems in that January storm was the drivers got stuck in the snow and abandoned their cars, making streets and highways impassable for the people behind them. What preparations did the Maryland State Highway Administration make in advance of the snowfall? And what did you do once the bottlenecks began to develop?
PEDERSENWell, we pre-positioned heavy-duty wreckers to be moving jackknifed tractor-trailer trucks. The biggest problems that we had in Maryland were actually as a result of trucks that either got jackknifed or stuck in the traffic and not able to move. So we're looking at where we're pre-positioning both those heavy-duty wreckers as well as our snowplows themselves. I'd like to address the issue that Mr. Snyder raised, if I could.
PEDERSENWe really need to look at this both from the demand side, the number of people who are on the roadways during storms, as well as the response that the state DOTs and other public works agencies have. And we have a system that is stressed even during good weather. When you have bad weather, there's not as much capacity available on the system itself. So part of what we do have to be doing is figure out ways that we can be trying to get people to be either staying home or leaving work earlier so that we don't have a situation like we had on Jan. 26 with everybody hitting the roads at the same time.
PEDERSENGetting messages out in a very foreseeable way that, if people do not leave early or if they don't stay home, they might have -- get stuck in traffic and not be able to move is part of what is incumbent upon us to be doing a better job of getting those messages out, getting messages out about -- and what people need to be doing to be prepared if they do get stuck. And, as you say, one of the biggest problems we had was people abandoning their vehicles. Maryland State Police had to tow over 600 vehicles off of our roadways that had been abandoned, and that's the worst thing that could be done. And we need to be getting messages out about that as well.
NNAMDIThere is, as I said earlier, a tornado watch in effect for this area until 4 p.m. today. I have, so far, not seen messages from any jurisdiction about what to do. Could you give us an indication, Neil Pedersen, about what you guys are doing at the Maryland State Highway Administration about this right now?
PEDERSENWell, unfortunately, we've had the experience over the last couple of years of a number of severe storms, either very severe thunderstorms or, in a few cases, tornados that have touched down. Our maintenance forces are ready in terms of responding to any trees that come down, any road closures that we have. We work very closely with power companies. Very often, when we do have severe storms of this type, it's actually trees coming down on power lines that create the biggest problems.
PEDERSENMaking sure that we are working very closely with the car companies in responding and helping them, and making sure that our operation center, that we're getting current information in terms of road closures so that we can be getting information out to the public, either on our website or on our variable message signs or through the media as well.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We will start with Les in Marshall, Va. Les, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LESOh, hi. I live out in the country, so, thank God, I was not stuck commuting in the snow. But I don't think that that last snowstorm was, like, a totally fair test of, you know, preparedness. It absolutely was sort of the worst scenario. Most, you know, people criticize the government for letting people out early. People are going to go home early. And if you have a forecast that says, hey, it's going to start snowing at 3:30 -- and a lot of -- most snowstorms, you know, if you have an hour to go and you leave at 3, you're going to be driving through, you know, the beginning of the snowstorm.
LESAnd you'll probably be -- you know, it'll probably be rotten at the end, but you'll make it. This snowstorm hit like gangbusters at 3:30. You know, if you -- the best thing, in hindsight, would have been to say to everyone, everyone, stay in the office till 10 o'clock, and, by then, maybe people will have a chance to clear the roads. But the way it hit, I'm not really sure exactly what you could have done.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought up the unusual nature of that snowstorm, Les, because, for whatever reason, we get most of our snow overnight in the Washington area. That January storm, as Les pointed out, was unusual because the snow began in the afternoon when people were already at work. Millicent West, how did that make this even more challenging?
WESTIt really did create a significant challenge for us. And while there were several entities that allowed employees to -- or encouraged employees to leave early so that they could make it safely to their destinations, the rain started falling at, roughly, 3:30. Then it was followed by freezing rain and then sleet at about 4. AT about 4:05, then it began to snow, and it was a wet-heavy snow. Many people had already begun to make their exit from the city -- and I'm speaking of the District of Columbia -- but many others probably did not expect the type of event that we had.
WESTEven though we predicted or we were given information from the Weather Service and from AccuWeather about what we could expect in terms of inches. And we shared that with the public. Sometimes, we believe that 5" would not be a bad thing for us to have to deal with, but -- or a difficult thing for us to traverse. But, in this particular instance, because there was a sheet of ice underneath the snow, it created a more significant challenge and...
NNAMDIAnd you were out in it.
WESTI was out in it. I was out in it transporting people, actually. So I got to experience 13th Street, 14th Street, 16th Street and some of those challenges that were associated. And I saw a number of things that we were able to take note of as I was driving, or in some instances attempting to drive and actually had to get out and push my own vehicle. That helped me...
NNAMDIAnd you got a four-wheel drive.
WESTI have a four-wheel drive. And that helped me to understand how we could better prepare the district citizenry and, thereby, the region citizenry and folks who come into and leave the city every day in the event that something else like this would occur.
NNAMDIDavid Snyder, the federal government dismissed people two hours early, and some people say the outpouring of federal workers made the congestion worse. Was there coordination among public and private employers about early dismissal from work?
SNYDERThere was not the kind of coordination that, I think, we need to have in the future. Private employers basically said practically nothing, so, in a way, they were even more disorganized than the public sector was. You know, each one of these incidents is somewhat different. The factors are different, but they all expose -- whether you're talking about 9/11 and the region's problems on that day or with this snow event or some other incidents that we've had in the interim -- all exposed some really unacceptable vulnerabilities in our overall structure. One of them is the absence of a regional -- a truly regional incident management structure that doesn't rely on conference calls. For example, in the fire service, if you have a fire in a particular jurisdiction, there is one chief for that incident.
SNYDERNow, there may be many fire departments responding, but there's one chief accountable for managing the incident. We simply don't have that region wide with respect to cross-jurisdictional and cross-functional issues. The second area -- and this was mentioned earlier and quite right -- that the existing transportation system in this region, as we know, breaks down pretty regularly. And, in a case like this, it's particularly important to do your very best to manage demands. Now, in response to the caller, yeah, some people won't respond to the messages they get from government.
SNYDERThey'll do whatever it is that they want to do when they do it. But the numbers could have been dramatically reduced, had we been able to get very clear crisis communications out to the public -- what's going on, what we, the government, are doing about it and what you're expected to do. Other cities in the United States, other cities in the world, have figured out how to do this. It's not beyond our capability to do it and to learn from what happened here to prevent it.
NNAMDIWell, here's what complicates it, Neil Pedersen. The capital region is unusual, is that -- in that it includes parts of two states, the District of Columbia, several counties and dozens of cities. Is there any agreement that allows one person, one agency head, to make a decision for multiple jurisdictions in the event of a weather emergency or other area-wide disasters? I'll start with you, Neil.
PEDERSENWe don't have in place a czar, so to speak, for coordinating all of the action that's taking place in a weather emergency like this. We do need to make sure that we are communicating. We're communicating both by telephone, but also in terms of whatever information is available technologically amongst ourselves as well. We're making advances in that area in terms of sharing of information on -- whether its lane closures or other incidents that have taken place. And we're continuing to focus on that area as well.
PEDERSENI think we can do -- be doing a better job during the course of an event in making sure that communications are taking place and not just in advance of the event. You made reference to the call that took place at 10 o'clock in the morning. We do have our operations people directly talking with the District operations people and with the Virginia operations people so that we're aware of what's happening at our borders. But it's on ad hoc basis as opposed to a more disciplined basis. It's one of the lessons learned from Jan. 26. We actually make telephone calls every single hour now to both the District and Virginia to make sure that we know what's happening on the borders in those jurisdictions as well.
NNAMDIMillicent West, however, you make those telephone calls, and there are recommendations. But, in the final analysis, is there anyone who can tell someone else what to do?
WESTI'm glad you raised the multi-jurisdictional aspect to all of this. It's not likely that someone from the District of Columbia would be able to reach into Maryland and tell Maryland what to do with their roads and with their responders. There is a great deal of cooperation. We've seen that even today. We saw that just last weekend with the fires that were resultant of the high winds.
WESTSo there's not one person. And I don't know how reasonable it is to expect that that's going to be able to happen when you do have a jurisdiction, a national capital region that is made up of a state -- a commonwealth and the District of Columbia. It's just a challenge that we will have to work to continue to address, and that's what we're all committed to doing. And I believe that we've given a great deal of time and effort to working out solutions to the problems that we experienced on the 26th, and we hope that we won't have that same challenge again.
WESTEven this morning, we've been working to make sure that all of our communications efforts are effective and that we are planning to do things that make the most sense. If you were to ride around on some of our major thoroughfares right now, you'd see crews that are there, ready to remove debris if there's any that falls into the road, you'll see crews that are there to respond if traffic lights are out. We're working with our traffic control officers. We're working with the police department.
WESTWe're working with the fire department to make sure that there aren't any challenges to us being able to make it to our various homes, make it into and out of the District if something were to occur. And I know that it's probably a little bit broader than you'd like for me to be able to respond to. But, I think, it's important to note that, yes, we are a regional body, and it's difficult for one person who sits in one jurisdiction to call "the shots" for another jurisdiction.
NNAMDII'll get back to that in a second. But I know Neil Pedersen has to leave very shortly, so this final question for you, Neil. I'll ask it to the others after you're gone also. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the American Highway Users Alliance prepared an emergency evacuation report card for major American cities, gave New Orleans a D on its ability to evacuate its citizens by car, gave Washington an F. The 2006 report based its grades on how well internal streets could deliver drivers to exit points and how well highways could carry them away from the urban center. What grade would you, Neil, give the Washington region in terms of our ability to evacuate people by car today, right now?
PEDERSENSince Sept. 11, there's been a lot of work that has been done in terms of developing emergency evacuation plans for the Washington region. I think Mr. Snyder was very correct in saying that, on Sept. 11, we were not prepared. We are better prepared. We still will have challenges. We do not have unlimited capacity in terms of trying to evacuate a region all at one time. But we're certainly much better prepared than we were after Sept. 11. I would probably give us a C at this point.
NNAMDINeil Pedersen, thank you for joining us.
PEDERSENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDINeil Pedersen is an -- is administrator of the Maryland State Highway Administration. He joined us by phone from Annapolis. Several of you have joined us by phone already. Hold on. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on planning for the next emergency, weather-related or worse. Because the telephone lines are busy, you may want to go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about planning for the next emergency in the Washington region. We're talking with Millicent West, interim director of D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, and David Snyder. He is the vice mayor of Falls Church and a member and former chair of the Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board and a member of its emergency preparedness council. We will get to the telephones in one second. But, before he left, Neil Pedersen talked about the changes that have been made since 2001, David Snyder. But you say that there has been no change in the fundamental decision making structure since 2001.
SNYDERWithin a fragmented decision-making structure, there's no question that we've worked hard to make it as function as well as it can. We've established a new transportation coordinating initiative, if you will. MATOC, which is now working with all the transportation agencies to supply information back and forth to assist in the regional aspects of incidents, we hope that they'll be up and running soon with a public information, a part of what they're trying to do, so that the transportation agencies will be able to function more on a regional basis.
SNYDERThe problem, though, is essentially this, that in the case of the kind of incident that we saw with the recent snowstorm, that we saw at 9/11, we've got to find a more streamlined, coordinated, centralized, if necessary, decision-making effort to manage the incident. But perhaps even more important -- and this goes back to the discussion right before the break, about the Washington region getting an F for evacuation -- without public information that pushes the right messages out to people, in most cases, it's sheltering in place, stay where you are. Without that -- and this goes back to the demand management -- without that, we'll simply cause our transportation system to break down again, putting people in harm's way unnecessarily.
NNAMDIWell, you have called for the creation of a central incident management center, where officials from across the region could coordinate their actions and that would empower them to issue orders to the public. How would that work?
SNYDERThere are two different models you can use. The one is the typical sort of pyramid structure where you put somebody at the top. The other one is actually something that New York uses to manage its transportation emergencies and day-to-day things, for example, coordinating roadway repair efforts. And it's -- basically, it puts the agencies together as a board of directors, establishing policy, but then the incident is managed by accountable, dedicated staff. So, in essence, what you've done is you've recognized the agencies have legal responsibilities. You put them on a board, but then you establish a focused, dedicated, accountable staff to make sure that the incident is run on a regional basis and that the information that's critical to the public gets out to the public.
SNYDERThat's a model that, I think, should be explored in the region. The difficulty is -- I think, it was -- as Bobby Kennedy said, where you stand depends on where you sit. And I recognize that, if you work for a particular agency that's limited by jurisdiction or limited by function, you really can't suggest something that, in essence, might involve limiting the jurisdiction of your own agency or ceding some of it. And that's why The Washington Post was absolutely right, that the region has got to find a better way to organize itself or, perhaps, the federal government has to step in and do it for us. And I hope that's not the case.
NNAMDIHere's the politics, Millicent West. Is it possible to convince local officials to hand their decision-making power to someone else?
WESTI don't want to say that it's impossible, but I certainly believe that there is going to have to be a great deal of work that's done to make sure that something like that can happen. The difference between this region and New York City is that it's region versus New York City, which is one city. And so, you know, certainly within our own jurisdictions, I would dare say that we probably do a fairly good job of making sure that we're covering all of our bases. But when it comes to having those regional conversations, which we have all the time -- quite frankly, I talk to people from across the region through the COG structure and through other structures probably 30 percent of the time during a normal week.
WESTAnd so there's a great deal of coordination and cooperation that's happening, but there still has to be the agreement for there to be one body that governs all of that. And I don't know how easy that will be. And, quite frankly, I just believe that there are a lot of barriers that reach beyond the expectations of this conversation that would prevent something like that from happening very quickly. I'm not saying that it can't happen. I think if you have the will to do something, it can happen.
WESTI think we recognize that we are unique as a region and that there are things that we would need to consider and do differently. But it's just figuring out how to make that work and please all of the parties -- or at least get everyone on the same page -- could present a challenge. But, again, nothing that -- nothing is impossible. It's just we have to have the political will to make sure that something like that can happen.
NNAMDIHere is Danielle in Herndon, Va. Danielle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELLEHello. I had a comment and a question. And my comment was, I think there's kind of enough responsibility to go around for everyone. I personally think OPM should've let people out earlier than two hours. However, knowing that the rain was going to come, I left work at 12.
NNAMDIGood for you.
DANIELLEJust -- yes. Just to make sure I wouldn't get caught in it. And my question is, is there a plan or a place where you could listen to the radio in your car that, during emergencies, is activated where you could listen and find out what roads are blocked and traffic is closed? Because I noticed there are a lot of people who -- you know, you're getting bits and pieces from all these different stations, but there wasn't a place that you could go and find out all the information that you need in one spot. When I was growing up, we had a lot of tornados and floods. And so, during an emergency, you could turn to, like, 1600 AM on the radio, and they would tell you, okay, here's what's closed. These roads are flooded. Don't go this way.
NNAMDII suspect that a lot of that should begin before you get into your car, actually, but I don't know. Millicent West?
WESTThere are a number of opportunities that folks have to tune in to different radio stations. And, of course, we would not want you to use any text alerting systems while you're in your vehicle because that's against the law in some jurisdictions. But we did work to communicate with radio stations to let them know where road closures -- where the areas that drivers should avoid. We worked to do that throughout the course of the event. Unfortunately, in some instances, people would -- once they heard the information about a major road closure, would seek to find an alternative way to get out of the neighborhood that they were in or to make it home.
WESTAnd they found that the street that they went onto either had a tree across it or a power line that was down, and so they were, again, stuck behind something that would not allow them to pass. And, in many instances, those trees and power lines were in residential communities. And, if we were not getting those reports in, we could not report out what we weren't receiving. I'm not trying to absolve us from any responsibility of making sure that we're creating a comprehensive picture for folks who are going to be driving, but I do want to make sure that we let folks know that they can go to some of the normal radio stations that they would go to, to get information.
WESTFor our city -- for the District of Columbia -- there have been some immediate actions that we took to make sure that we are getting firsthand messages out to public radio and public television sources, so that they can very quickly share the information. And some of it has come at a cost to us, but we're willing to spend extra money to make sure that we're making sure that everybody that is trying to get to safety understand how they can best do that. Now, I do want to also mention -- and it's been mentioned briefly before -- that, in some instances, we have to make the determination personally, or whether it's given to us as an expectation from local leaders that we should, perhaps, shelter in place. Sheltering...
NNAMDII was about to get to that.
NNAMDIExactly, what is sheltering in place?
WESTSheltering in place is literally just that, sheltering right where you are. The hope is that, in your homes, in your cars and in your places of work, you will have developed a kit -- for lack of a better term -- or have a stock pile or have your own snacks in your desk and, you know, enough water in your car to make sure that, for at least a few hours, you can stay where you are and wait until situations improve. In this instance, people say, well, you know, wasn't there a snow emergency? Why didn't you call a snow emergency in the District of Columbia?
WESTSnow emergency is in reference to parking. It's not in reference to people driving down the road. And so we're not restricting people from driving down Connecticut Avenue, but we are restricting people from parking on Connecticut Avenue in a snow emergency. And when the greatest impact hit the District of Columbia, it was during rush hour. And so people weren't parked on Connecticut Avenue anyway. They weren't parked on 16th Street anyway.
NNAMDISo a snow emergency in that situation may not have helped?
WESTIt would not have helped. And, in the District, we did not declare a state of emergency either because we had not, at that point, taxed all of our resources in terms of (unintelligible).
NNAMDIBut Danielle's question raises a broader issue, David Snyder, in that is there a way to get out a unified message to the public about what to do in these situations? How do we solve that communications issue?
SNYDERWell, it's not beyond our ability to do it. I was in London during the second set of subway bombings. The first ones actually went off, and the second ones were duds and didn't work. And I was in an office building in London when the incident was occurring. We got a public address message. Here's what happened. Here is what we're doing about it. You are to stay in your offices. We heard that message twice over the course of the afternoon. Then about five o'clock, the message was, here's what occurred, here's what we're doing about it. You're now free to go. These subway stations are closed. These -- the condition of the highways are thus and so and thus and so.
SNYDERSo London has figured a way -- and I talked to other people who were there on the same day. They got the same basic messages. So London, a large, diverse region with multiple jurisdictions, has figured a way to develop a regional message and push it out, not only to the public sector but to the private sector as well. And, unless we do that, unless we find a way to manage demand, as Mr. Pedersen said earlier, we're going to simply result in the same kinds of things happening again.
SNYDERThe incidents will be different. It may be terrorism. It may be weather-related -- whatever it'll be -- but it's a structural issue requiring the region to come together in a new and different way to not only manage things, but to make sure the public is getting a coherent message about what is expected of them. And the public, in turn, gives that whole apparatus the credibility that it needs for them to follow the instructions that they're being given.
NNAMDIHere is Rich in Olney, Md. Daniel, thank you for your call. Rich, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHWell, Kojo, I'm a commuter from Olney, mostly a metro commuter. But, over 20 years, I've spent enough time in cars, and I think that every commuter is a private transportation planner. So my hats actually go off to the people you've got there because, as someone said, our system is stressed under normal conditions. And that stress is structural. Everything stops at the city line. The city is actually better because it has a grid system. But when you get to Silver Spring or Chevy Chase or on the other end, you know, just try going out Wisconsin Avenue, you're fine until you hit Bethesda. And it can take 15 minutes just to get through Bethesda past NIH. So our -- you know, these roads go into too few suburban.
GARYOn the Potomac side, you got to go over bridges. So it's a structural problem. We allow too many cars into the city, and I would be much in favor of taxing -- the city taxing people coming in, in the first place. I'm...
WESTI'm writing that down.
NNAMDIEven as we speak, in London, they do something along those lines.
RICHWell, a couple of other things is, when you are this private transportation planner and you're sitting at the lights, you see how much roadway is not used. And, again, this is under normal circumstances. But when -- on the other side of the light opposite you, the road is empty. So, you know, again, the District is better because it makes use of underpasses and overpasses which are -- you see in Howard County, but Montgomery County -- where I live -- has just been starting its first overpasses and underpasses. I mean, my gosh, if you could separate one way from the other way, you can keep traffic moving, and you actually use the road (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOkay, do have to move on. Rich, thank you for your call. More suggestions. Here is Jim in Hedgesville, W.Va. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMThanks for taking my call, Kojo. You know, I have been, in the past, a long-time resident of D.C. and know that this -- the snow emergencies are nothing new. It's been something that's been going on since, like the '50s. However, I seem to remember that you are required to either have -- I mean, required -- either snow tires or chains. I don't see that anymore. And the way the cars are designed now that -- a lot of cars have these low-profile tires. They're absolutely no good in snow at all -- none. And I sit out here on a main highway, and I can just tell you the number of automobiles, and trucks, too, that can't even get up a hill because they have those kinds of tires on.
JIMAs far as the...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
NNAMDINo, your turn.
JIMOkay. As far as the trucks go, my answer to that is make them chain up. They make them do it out West. They need to do it here. And that will -- excuse me -- probably eliminate more than half of your tractors and trailers and van -- trucks getting stuck in traffic.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Millicent West, I do have to admit I was surprised at how many cars I saw that night that -- some of them looking like four-wheel drive vehicles but, in fact, were not. And some clearly didn't have snow tires at all.
WESTThat's true. And that's something that we're looking at in terms of potentially introducing legislation that requires motorists to have the appropriate types of either vehicles or tires or accessories to place on their tires if there is an event. But I think we do need to be reminded of the fact that we aren't the Midwest. We aren't the far Northeast in areas where they receive a great deal of snow. I'm originally from Buffalo, N.Y., so I know snow.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that. Allow me to have Gary interrupt us. Gary in Washington...
NNAMDIGary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please, Gary.
GARYGood afternoon. You know, before last year, we had several years of very light snow...
GARY...and, at that time, as I was looking at it, I said to myself, you know, this is all going to even out. So what do we do during those years of light snow? What happens to the budget that we have for all that removal? And what happens to the training of the workers who have to deal with it? Are we rolling over that money to prepare for the years like last year that will help even things out? And are we -- do we take those lean times so that as a time to do nothing with our workers? Or do we see it as an opportunity to train them and prepare for what is likely to come?
WESTWith regard to the training that you referenced, yes. We are providing training for not just the folks that work within those public service agencies, but other agencies as well to make sure that they know how to effectively operate heavy equipment and other plow equipment during an event. So training goes on all the time. We're training people on traffic management all the time. The challenge is sometimes those folks who have been trained may not necessarily either be working that particular shift or be able to make it to the locations where we need their support. So training is ongoing. That's an ongoing investment that we make across the board.
WESTWith regard to the reserves in areas where we may not have any significant spending in an area but have the need for the level of support, the level of investment in the following years, there are some rules as it relates to moving money from one line item in one budget chapter to another. But do know that the expectation for all of the agencies that have a role in emergency response is that they do place a significant amount of their local budget and, in some instances, even federally funded budgets to ensure that there is enough to cover what we anticipate will be the challenges of the coming year. And it's not just, you know, pulling straws out of hats and, you know, making things up, but it really is looking at actuarial data.
WESTIt's looking at the past performance. It's looking at atlases and almanacs and some of the things that we use to depend very heavily on to inform our planning. So know that those investments continue to take place, and there are ways that we want to make sure that we're using those dollars as wisely as we can. But we don't sometimes see our challenges and our weaknesses until the system is stressed in the way that it was on the 26th.
NNAMDIGary, thank you for your call. We are taking a short break. And, speaking of how we see our challenges, there is a meeting of the council of governments coming up on March 9. When we come back, we'll talk with David Snyder and Millicent West about what we can expect coming from there. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about emergency planning in the Washington area. We're talking with Millicent West, interim director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, and David Snyder. He is vice mayor of Falls Church, member and former chair of the Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board, and a member of its Emergency Preparedness Council. David, the Council of Governments is meeting on March 9. Will the regional response to severe weather be on the agenda, or will the attitude all be, that's all behind us now?
SNYDERThe Council of Governments is already engaged in a thorough review of what happened that day through the Emergency Preparedness Council. And in that council, you have federal representatives, state and local representatives, all different functional areas. So we had a very honest review, if you will, of what occurred and why. The problem is what we're going to do about it. The Council of Governments is basically a confederation, if you will, of local and state governments. It has no ability to require particular changes. It's very valid as a forum, and it has improved and helped our region improve significantly.
SNYDERHowever, we continue to have two vulnerabilities that the snow event uncovered, and they've been uncovered in prior events and are likely to hinder us in our response in the future. The first is the lack of a true regional incident management system, and, secondly, the lack of a true regional incident public information message generation and distribution system. Without these two things being improved -- and there has been some modest improvement within the existing structures that we have -- without some dramatic improvements, I fear that, while the facts may be somewhat different in the next major regional incident, that the end result may very well be the same.
NNAMDIThis e-mail we got from Tom. "I'm from Minneapolis. If it's raining and the temperature drops to freezing, the salt is gone and there's nothing that can be done once traffic is jammed on the streets. Salt trucks can't move. It doesn't matter what city you're in. This is the way things are. Other than forbid travel as the weather moves in, this is the nature of the beast. No one's to blame. Sometimes all you can do is hunker down. And in this town, hunkering is not an option. We're all too important, and then we look to blame someone when the uncontrollable happens." I won't ask for any comments on that. Here is Ed in Arlington, Va. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Ed. Are you there? Ed seems to have moved on. So, this time, we will go...
NNAMDIOh, Ed, you are there now. Go ahead, please.
EDI thought I lost you for a second. I'm calling about the Tyson's Corner area. I know that's not D.C., but there's a heck of a lot of people employed out there. And whether it's an emergency or just a normal heavy traffic, the -- with the construction with the subways in the -- well, the Metro and the rerouted exit and entrance ramps for 495, immediately after entering or leaving the Tyson's Corner Mall, traffic jams up there with vehicles in incorrect lanes trying to get on the beltway or get around people that are backed up to get on the beltway and then cut in front of them. And there's no police there to direct traffic or make people move along if they're in a lane that should provide straight ahead...
NNAMDIAnd that's under normal circumstances.
EDAnd that night, people couldn't get on to either 123 or 7, for the reason that it was all backed up trying to get on to 495. And all lanes were backed up as a result.
NNAMDIWhat would be your suggestion about what to do there, Ed?
EDMatter of fact, county police simply standing there to direct traffic and telling people, no, you can't stay in this lane and expect to turn right or left up ahead. You have to move forward.
NNAMDIThat would have helped.
EDIt would have made traffic move.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call and for that suggestion. Do you think -- and this question is for both of you, Millicent West and David Snyder. Millicent West -- you first -- do you think there's enough political will right now to change the way the region makes decisions about weather and other emergencies?
WESTI think there's enough political will right now to ensure that we have meaningful conversations about making sure that something like that happens. I can't get into the minds of the local politicians and the state representatives, but, certainly, I know that people want to make sure that the people that they're serving in their communities are safe. And people want to make sure that people in their communities are able to enjoy life as they believe that they should, based on the investment that they make in public service. And so I believe that there is enough political will to make sure that we do at least come together to discuss how that could look. But I don't know that the solution is an immediate one but one that, I believe, people are willing to work toward because of what was made so salient during this last event.
NNAMDIDavid Snyder, the suggestions you have seem to make absolute sense. Nevertheless, I get the impression that we need the equivalent of a political sledgehammer to make those things come into reality -- become reality.
SNYDERThe most important thing to assure that we make the changes that we have to make is for the public to stay engaged. Shows such as this, The Washington Post editorial, it's that kind of thing that will assure that, over time, the urgency doesn't sort of slip away, that the -- and the -- all the officials that I've talked to really are very serious about examining what occurred and making the kind of changes to prevent its reoccurrence. It's going to be tough, though, and it's going to take some time. And it's got to take sustained public focus on the issue.
SNYDEROtherwise, my fear is that sort of inertia will set in again. We'll make -- you know, we'll have more plans. We'll make some marginal sort of improvements. We'll coordinate better. But the end result is the overall vulnerabilities in the region will continue just simply to be exposed, yet again, when a combination of either natural or manmade events occurs.
NNAMDIHere's Pete in Sterling, Va. Pete, your turn.
PETEI'd like to address just the snow issue, not the civil defense issue. Back in the old days, they used to have 55-gallon drums on the side of the road, laying sideways, with sand or salt or a mixture in there, so that if somebody got stuck on the hill, especially on hills -- and a coffee can to distribute the stuff underneath the tires when you're going about your way. In this day of age, of allowing the dump trucks to do it all for us, there's no self-help out there. I just feel that the jurisdictions would have a back-up plan, like it happened on that infamous day, that they could get out, help themselves to the salt and sand and then try to get up the hill themselves.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for that memory and, maybe now, suggestion. Finally, here is Doris in Union Bridge, Md. Doris, you only have about 30 seconds, but go ahead, please.
DORISOkay. My feeling is there needs to be a refocus. Snowstorms have been far more apparent in the last 10 years than in the previous 10 years. And we are no longer exactly the southern city who never gets snow and when it does, it's a novelty. When we get snow, it really messes everybody up. And I think that the COG needs to rethink the whole thing. I'm from Niagara Falls, N.Y., and I grew up with a lot of snowstorms…
NNAMDIAnd it looks like we'll be getting the same kind of thing here because, Doris and others would argue, of climate change. Doris, thank you for your call. Millicent West, thank you for joining us.
WESTThank you so much for having me today.
NNAMDIMillicent West is interim director of D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. David Snyder, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDavid is vice mayor of Falls Church. He's a member and former chair of the Council of Governments, Transportation Planning Board, and a member of its Emergency Preparedness Council. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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