Rich Cooper

Feb 16, 2010

If you talk to any parent in the National Capital Region, odds are they are at their wits end with having their children stuck at home for nearly a week and a half. After two large snowstorms and a pathetically minor dusting, most of the region’s school children ventured back into the classroom today. It could not have happened soon enough. As frustrating as the continued school cancellations may have been, the region’s educators had little choice in the matter. With impassable roads, unreachable sidewalks, glacial formations blocking entrances, and teachers and school staff hard pressed to get out of their own neighborhoods, cancellations were the only choice school leaders had.

Government and business leaders were faced with similar “no win” choices. When the roads are a wreck, a public transportation system is inoperable above ground for subway cars, and buses have very limited service, there is little they can do to keep their doors in the position they want – “open for business.”

As FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has so aptly put in numerous ways, “It’s time we treated the citizen as an asset and as a member of the response team, rather than as a liability.”  

While it is easy (and in numerous cases appropriate) to mock the National Capital Region for its traditional panic and hysteria when bad weather is forecast, let alone when it arrives, the 2010 Mother Nature Winter rampage has put forward some great issues that public and private sector leaders, as well as citizens, should be acting on. For instance:

In an area that is as widely connected to the Internet, why can’t government, business or school go on in some type of limited capacity? Today’s Washington Post Editorial Section made just that pitch for government telecommuting.  I know from speaking with friends during the storm, many of them were still working their day jobs from home taking conference calls, looking after clients, etc. Why can’t our schools do something similar? Our regular lives may have been interrupted by snow, but learning can still go on. I know that a computer screen is no substitute for a professional teacher, an engaged classroom and regimented curriculum, but there are still things that can be worked on when the school doors are closed. Our educators need to be thinking about telecommuting with their students as well. What happened to all of those pandemic flu plans for education, and why weren’t they used to deal with this circumstance?

Brigades of parents, students and other volunteers brought their shovels and backs to clear streets, sidewalks and entrances to schools to get them reopened. Efforts such as these are sound examples of an engaged and active citizenry. Thanks to PTA lists as well as other school directories, it was easy to reach out to a vested and interested constituency and ask them to help out. The call went out, and it was answered. 

As great as their volunteer shoveling may have been, it would be just as great to mobilize citizens to shovel out fire hydrants and street drains. God forbid there is a fire in a neighborhood and responding fire units have to spend part of their response time digging out a hydrant for a water hook up. 

The same for storm drains. While the thaw is slowly underway, all of this snow has to go somewhere. Unless residents have dreams of creating their very own neighborhood Venice, removing snow from storm drains so it can go some place other than your basement is a good start.  Mobilizing regional CERT Team members to go door to door to ask for help in doing these things is a great way to get neighborhoods involved in their own resilience.
There are so many lessons to be recorded and acted on that no posting by me or any other blogger could capture them all.

The point is simply this: If we allow the circumstances of the past two weeks to go by as a frustrating, angst-filled memory rather than a teachable moment, this region will deserve to be the butt of more finger-pointing jokes about its weather wimpiness.

While I have my own doubts about the region’s ability to become a capital of resilience (namely because we have way too many lawyers to find a reason why not to do something), we can become a better community by reaching out to civic groups, neighborhood associations and average citizens and make them part of the overall snow/emergency response plan.

Over the past two weeks, this region showed flickers of hope inline with Fugate’s vision of citizen participation. With any luck and continued persistence by citizens about the lessons learned, we just might be able to make that vision an everyday reality in years to come.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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