Rich Cooper

Feb 11, 2010

Like most people of the Mid-Atlantic region, I’ve spent almost a week hunkered down at home with my family watching the piles and piles of global warming stack outside my home. For as unprecedented as this weather pattern has been for the region, with its wide-scale closures and cancellations of schools, businesses and government operations, it has been a remarkable test of the region’s resilience. While the jury is still out on a final evaluation (since the last snow flake has yet to fall), here are some things we have learned:

• Contracting mechanisms utilized by Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia to bring in additional support (e.g., plows/salt-spreaders, dump-trucks, etc.) have seemed to work. So far, there has been no word of any of these jurisdictions not being able to put people to work in snow removal. The bigger challenge has probably been finding enough people and equipment to keep up with the on-going snowfall, let alone finding any place to actually put it after it’s been plowed. All of the snow plow drivers have done a helluva job. I know there are many who never saw a plow on their street, but when you consider the expanse of the area served and the magnitude of what needed to be done, they still deserve a big hand and a tall cold one after all their shifts are done.

• The local news media has done a great job of keeping residents informed about what’s happening in the area while reinforcing the message of staying off the roads and encouraging neighbors to look out for the senior citizens that live nearby. Additional stories – what to do in a car emergency; how to handle generators and home heaters; and what to put in a home “ready kit” – have also been spot on. While some of the coverage has been a tad excessive, some news anchors and reporters provided some humor and levity to what has been a real mess.

• Our first-responders once again proved that they are the people who will always be there.  Living not far from a police and fire station in Fairfax County, it is common for me to hear sirens going as they answer a call, regardless of the hour or conditions. Through it all, they were there. They certainly were delayed from some response calls given road and weather conditions, but they honored their oaths of public service in countless ways.

• Some politicians are always out to make themselves look good in spite of conditions that say otherwise. Case in point – DC’s Mayor Adrian Fenty. Showing his typical media bravado, Fenty declared last Sunday that DC schools and government would be open on Monday morning after a two-hour delay. Maybe the streets were clear and sidewalks snow-free in “Fenty-land,” but to the rest of his constituents, the increasingly arrogant mayor showed how truly out of touch he is from reality. After an outcry by residents, questions from media (“Ahhh Mr. Mayor, have you actually driven through the city and seen that no school bus other than a tank can get through it?”) and a reality check by his own Emergency Services and School personnel, he backed off and schools and the city government were closed.  They’ve been that way ever since. If people could remove their craniums from rectal inversion, they might actually see what’s happening rather than what they think is going on. 

• For the most part, grocery and hardware stores did a great job tending to the needs of a very demanding constituency. I didn’t really see any price gouging going on, but I’m sure what you paid for a snow-shovel and a bag of salt this week was a helluva lot more than what you paid for it at the beginning of December. What was really amazing to watch though were the people running into Home Depots, Lowes and other hardware stores demanding generators, shovels, snow-blowers and so forth and looking in disbelief that they were all sold out. The same could be said for the people in line at the grocery store trying to buy crates of toilet paper, eggs, milk, bread, batteries, beer and chips and moaning to store staff when the shelves were bare. While not all of those items have a long shelf or storage life, there is no excuse other than stupidity and laziness for not having many of those things on hand for yourself or your family.

• While it is more than easy to kick Metro around given its rash of problems (e.g. operational safety, worker safety, service outages, etc.), the winter storms of the past week have again highlighted the transportation system’s operational weaknesses to the weather. Let’s just face facts – if we have more than eight inches of snow, the trains won’t be running above ground. When that happens, Washington, DC, the federal government, and for that matter, the region’s economy, grinds to a halt. For all the jokes that non-native Washingtonians make about the wimpy-ness of this area when the threat of snow and other weather systems is forecast or occurs, the fact we don’t have a public transportation system in the nation’s capital that can operate in more than eight inches of snow is pathetic. London, Moscow and other capitals have public transportation systems that do, but given the incredible amount of micro-management and penny-pinching to which the system is subject, I guess we should be lucky for what we’ve got. I don’t want to feel lucky. I want what other National Capital Region residents want – a system that is safe, efficient and operational come rain, shine or snow. We don’t have that and until the area’s leadership sucks it up and states the obvious (“This is going to cost money!”) and makes the necessary capital investments in the WHOLE Metro system (people, infrastructure, etc.), we will continue to pathetically hobble along. I don’t think that is a proud metric of success, but we will be stuck with it until we act otherwise. Metro has every potential to be the real national leader in public transportation, and if the Obama Administration is really committed to infrastructure investments and public transportation, it needs look no farther than outside its immediate windows to see a worthy place to put federal dollars to work.

• The word “resilient” certainly cannot be used to describe the federal government operations this past week. Breaking all previous records for consecutive weather closures, one thing not mentioned in any of the announcements about the closing of the Federal Government was the word, “telework.” I am more than confident that thousands of National Capital Region federal employees and contractors fired up their laptops and home computers and got a lot of things done that were waiting in their respective in-boxes. Their self-initiative and dedication to service is commendable but would have been more commendable if the Office of Personnel Management when stating the federal government was closed had stated that employees and contractors were encouraged to telework. This past week has been an extraordinary opportunity for every federal agency (as well as private sector entity) to test its telework operations, as well as their continuity of government operations.  Instead, we followed the practices of old when the innovative tools of today and opportunities of tomorrow were ignored. As we’ve learned time and again, the old way of doing business is fine for maintaining the status quo but the status quo never made anyone resilient.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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