Loose Canons

A Lenny Skutnik Sputnik Moment

Big government evacuations, Washington, D.C. style.

By 1.31.11

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The rousing finish to President Obama's State of the Union speech proclaimed America as the nation that does "big things." And we do, or at least we used to.

We invented the light bulb, the airplane, and the telephone. We perfected the car and while the Brits were manufacturing the MGB (which was fun to drive on the infrequent moments it wasn't sitting by the side of the road broken down), we were making the Corvette and the Mustang. In the half-century of the Cold War, we put a man on the moon and people such as the late great Kelly Johnson -- creator of the supersecret Lockheed "Skunk Works" -- made us believe that enormous technological breakthroughs were our birthright.

So why is it that our capital city can't even deal with minor snow storms?

I'm not talking about last year's "snowmageddon." Last Wednesday, Washington was paralyzed by a storm which, for the East Coast, was a routine winter event. About six inches of snow fell beginning in the early afternoon. By 4 p.m., the region was entirely gridlocked. Hundreds spent up to thirteen hours stranded on the otherwise scenic George Washington Parkway in suburban Virginia. About seventy Metrobuses broke down, turning nearby Maryland suburbs into honking nightmares. A half-dozen jackknifed tractor-trailers brought the 64-mile Washington Beltway to a halt.

And, three days later, thousands of Maryland and Virginia residents were still without electricity, so they hunkered down around their gas fireplaces and ate sushi.

At least they weren't stuck in the New Orleans Superdome for three days without water, food or functioning bathrooms. Overflowing commuters reportedly functioned as necessary among the stuck cars.

It's not enough to blame the D.C. government. Anyone who has lived here for more than two weeks knows that the only thing the D.C. government does competently is hand out parking tickets. And it's not enough to blame the dysfunctional multi-jurisdictional region for the failure of the Maryland, D.C., and Virginia to cooperate, which they don't and won't as long as none are willing to share responsibilities. In truth, this is another reminder about the vulnerability of Washington to "man-caused disasters," Secretary Janet Incompetano's euphemism for terrorist attacks.

To be fair, Our Lady of Homeland Security has a problem that isn't exactly new. On January 14, 1982 an Air Florida airliner grazed the 14th Street Bridge in a snowstorm and crashed into the Potomac. What few remember is that there was a Metro subway accident at the same time, and traffic was so tied up that many of us took one look at the streets and decided to walk to a local bar rather than drive home.

On the morning of 9-11, when the Pentagon was burning, across the river in D.C. panicked commuters had clogged the streets and the subway to a standstill. I sat in my office, about two blocks from the White House, waiting for the fourth aircraft to crash into the president's house. There was no alternative other than trying to walk through the traffic to get home, then about seven miles away because I was as unprepared as the government.

Disaster preparedness is a serious business, and it's time we became serious about it. That, of course, requires states, cities and private citizens to do it themselves because our Department of Homeland Security is institutionally incapable of doing what is necessary. (See, e.g., border security.)

Americans aren't -- and shouldn't be -- a regimented people. We're not going to take numbers and line up in order to march out of a disaster area chanting "danger is safety" or whatever other Orwellian phrase the DOHS dolts prescribe. And, in cases such as 9-11 where one city has been hit and another expects to be, panic will ensue. So what can be done?

First are the first-responders. Our police and firemen will always respond heroically, but can they do so effectively? The Department of Homeland Security has spent hundreds of millions of dollars studying this issue in states, cities, and towns across the nation, but there is little to show for the expense other than a lot of paperwork that no one reads far less acts upon.

The answer to that part of the problem is found in the interstate compact mechanism conveniently provided in Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution. A few states already have agreements by which they share police, fire, and rescue assets in emergencies. Those agreements should commit the states to sufficient expense and planning to deal with disasters effectively for at least 24 hours without waiting for whatever massive help the federal government may provide later.

More states and cities should have such agreements, and those who already have them should review and revise them to better effect disaster preparedness. If Virginia lacked the equipment to clear the George Washington Parkway of stuck cars, nearby Maryland should have pitched in (and if, as I suspect, both defaulted to the U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction over that road, both should prepare to intervene whenever the Park Police doesn't clear the road quickly enough to prevent an inconvenience from turning into a 13-hour life-threatening disaster).

Second, people have to do more to help themselves. This isn't a "Sputnik moment": call it a "Lenny Skutnik moment."

Mr. Skutnik was the hero of the Air Florida crash. Seeing survivors flailing helplessly in the nearly-frozen Potomac, he dove in to rescue them. He fit the definition of a hero: someone who acts to save others in disregard of the danger to himself. Not all of us are heroes and still fewer will be called upon to act heroically. But we can all do something that will help train and prepare ourselves to do what is necessary in an emergency and avoid increasing the burdens of our first-responders.

Panic is an emotional reaction to helplessness. The tool you need to avoid panic is a backpack. You should keep it at home, in the trunk of your car or in your office if you commute by train, bus or carpool. Think of it as a wearable version of Douglas Adam's fictional "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which had "Don't Panic" emblazoned on the cover.

In your backpack, you should have the following confidence-instilling materials:

• A highly-detailed map of your area and a compass. You may think you know your way around, but the streets you know may be blocked. A map and compass will guide you around those obstacles. Any Boy Scout can show you how to orient the compass to the map and follow it to where you need to go. Don't rely on cell phone GPS systems which, in a big enough emergency, may not function.

• Waterproof hiking boots, two pairs of socks, lightweight rain gear and a sweater or polar-fleece pullover to stay warm.

• Six or eight protein bars and two liters of water, enough to keep your energy up and keep you hydrated on your hike.

• Two dust-proof painter's masks which may reduce the effect of a biological or chemical attack.

• A small flashlight and first-aid kit including a stretchable cloth bandage to brace sprains.

• A multi-purpose "leatherman" tool and a 20-foot length of clothesline.

• If your home is more than ten miles from your place of work, you need a poncho or space blanket to hunker down in overnight; and

• If you can carry it legally, a weapon of your choice be it a can of pepper spray or a pistol. (Don't leave that unsecured in any office even during the day.)

This is what we call a "go bag": the ready-to-go kit you grab while rushing out to escape danger, or which can enable you to stay right where you are to wait out a crisis. It'll be the lightest 20-pound burden you've ever carried.

Think about what you'll do, prepare for it, and you won't be one of those who die on the side of a road waiting for Janet Incompetano to rescue you.


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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.