Wake-Up Call For Emergency Planning: Earthquake Disrupts Commute For DC Workers

5:18 PM, Aug 24, 2011   |    comments
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA)-- In the wake of the Virginia earthquake, there appeared to be two major breakdowns that dramatically hindered evacuations.

Traffic was gridlocked and cell phone service completely disrupted after millions up and down the East Coast tried to make calls simultaneously.

One day later, a lot of people say this an important wake-up call and a time to take more personal responsibility during a local emergency. Sign up for email and text alerts in your jurisdiction, find out where the evacuation routes are, and most importantly, develop a communication plan with your family.

"Basically earthquake at 2. Home by 8," recalled Melinda Cooke. She had to make her way down the stairs, all the way from the 13th floor of her downtown office building. She's pregnant--due to deliver her baby in just three weeks.

"I went to catch a D-6 bus, which never came," she said. "There were five million people at Union Station waiting for MARC trains that weren't coming."

"It's normally an hour, but it took me three." Jeff Dyer had a rough commute to Northern Virginia, too. "When I went down to the Metro, it said, 15 minutes until the next orange line train, but it was more like 45 minutes."

Since so many people disregarded local government instructions to stay put, the transportation systems were overwhelmed.

"If this were a test, we flunked it and we flunked it badly," said John Townsend, of AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Added Dyer, "It was a big panic. You couldn't get on cell phones immediately. Everybody thought bomb at first."

As the Wireless Association points out, it wasn't a system failure but an overload. Consider this traffic analogy.

"If everybody in DC decided to drive on I-395 at the same time, we'd have a massive backup. The highway itself would still be operable and still be fully functional," said John Walls of the CTIA.

After 9/11, the federal government beefed up its emergency planning, but Tuesday, many say it fell apart.

"You wonder where did the two billion dollars go? And even though you can spend massive sums of money, if people panic, none of it works," said Townsend.

And despite her awful commute, Melinda Cooke says, there was a silver lining.

"More people gave up their seats yesterday than normal," said Cooke, with a big smile.

Another suggestion, in the event of an emergency, is to send out a text blast to family members rather than individual texts. Do not try to rely on your cell phone.

To view photographs shot after the earthquake by National Press Club photographer Sam Hurd, please click here.


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