The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) meeting had just concluded with a report from the Incident Management and Response Steering Committee when the skies opened with brilliant lightning strikes and torrential downpours across the region. The subject for discussion was the January 26 snow/ice event that paralyzed the National Capital Region, but the timing with summer’s severe weather warnings was uncanny.
Snow drifts and icy patches were replaced with high water, clogged drains, and “rooster tails” created by passing vehicles. The occasional stranded vehicle in a travel lane made for long road trips home as drivers tried to maneuver around the blockage and get back up to speed. I was glad I had remembered to gas up that morning; otherwise, I probably would have run out of fuel as a usual 20 minute trip back to my office took more than an hour.
Electrical service was disrupted, too, as power lines were sliced by falling trees and transformers zapped by lightning strikes. The Mason District Governmental Center was without power for more than two hours, and incoming phone calls were answered by busy signals. Fortunately, restoration of electrical service in the area took only a few hours, not days like winter’s snowstorms.
The regional Incident Management and Response Steering Committee continues to work on recommendations from local, state, and federal agencies, the business community, and others, prior to presenting its final report to the COG Board in November, prior to the 2011-2012 snow season. The areas of focus include improving real-time information or situational awareness among governmental agencies with operational authority or responsibilities and improving that real-time information to the media and the public. At the recent COG Board meeting, members questioned Montgomery County Councilmember Phil Andrews, chairman of the Steering Committee, about the need for better decision-making, and communicating those decisions to the public. In the January storm, which followed its forecast almost to the minute, workers were released early, but many people decided to wait since it didn’t look bad when the release word came down. Falls Church City Council member Dave Snyder asked who and when can say “you must leave now.” Conversely, Councilmember Andrews said, you need to look at mandatory “stays” as well. Arlington County Councilmember Walter Tejada noted that many area residents do not use or have access to electronic media, so messaging needs to be in many formats, and languages. My question to Mr. Andrews keyed on an incident in Mason District where an elderly hospital volunteer stayed until the end of her shift, and then got stuck for hours on her way home. How do you notify non-profit organizations that depend on volunteers rather than regular employees, and whose business communications policies may be different?
Severe weather emergencies have become commonplace, regardless of the season. Personal preparation, and a plan, are key to whatever recommendations are made via governmental agencies. A working cell phone, full gas tank, appropriate weather gear, and supplies for sheltering in place – at the office, at home, or in your car – will make such situations bearable – and survivable.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org