Darrell Darnell, director of the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, says there would be “a lot of panic, a lot of chaos” if a small nuclear bomb detonated near the White House, which would most likely prevent an evacuation of the city as radiation spread.
In an hour long interview, Darnell also said the major lesson from June 13, when a power substation failure shut off traffic lights, a fire broke out in a Metro station and massive gridlock stymied D.C. police and emergency crews, is that “we need to do a better job coordinating agencies.”
“We didn’t do a very good job of getting MPD (Metropolitan Police Department) and DDOT (District Department of Transportation) there,” he said.
“We’ve also got to communicate better.”
Darnell, however, could not name a single alternative his office has come up with to prevent a repeat of the chaos that enveloped downtown for several hours on June 13.
Darnell also said the official in charge of a similar emergency would not be him.
“It usually depends on who is first on the scene,” he said. “The first person on the scene is the incident commander, until someone else comes on the scene, who’s most qualified. And that’s how the incident command is determined.”
Major portions of the interview follow.
Q: Have you had any drills with power plants failing? Such as, say, the power plant that provides the U.S. Capitol with electricity?
A:We’ve had a number of exercises on numerous different scenarios. We’ve had table top exercises with the Capitol Hill Police emergency management office. They conduct evacuation drills. That type of thing.
Q: How many?
A: I can’t say off the top of my head.
Q: Any since June 13?
A: No, we have not.
Q: Who’s in charge during in a major emergency in the city?
A: Well, I think we all operate under the Incident Command system, to have consistency and commonality among different agencies at the federal, state and local level responding to an event.
So who’s in charge would depend on the event, and who we believe is most qualified agency-slash-person to lead that event. So it’s not just a matter of saying it’s a certain federal, state or local person, but who’s best qualified to handle that event. And it usually depends on who is first on the scene. The first person on the scene is the incident commander, until someone else comes on the scene, who’s most qualified. And that’s how the incident command is determined.
Q: Who was in charge on June 13?
A:Who was in charge? For the district government, I’m not sure who took charge. But this agency took charge in terms of trying to coordinate our overall response.
Now, remember, there were three events going on at the same time. We had two fires in the Metro stations, which would be the fire emergency management folks. The battalion commander, I don’t remember his specific name. He would have been in charge. It was at the Dupont metro station.”
Q: But the overall thing?
A:The coordination of it was this office, with me trying to provide the situational awareness of what was going on, that senior members had the information on what was going on, what type of resources we had out to try to mitigate the consequences of those events. But again, it would be the incident commander on the ground who would be dictating what was going on.
In the case of the power outage, it was affecting mostly traffic, it wasn’t affecting buildings and those kinds of things. So the transportation folks took the lead, in figuring out how to get people out to direct traffic, get the lights back up and running and those kinds of things.
So our role was really to provide the coordination piece and the situational awareness of what was going on.”
Q: Does that mean you’re in charge?
A:I just explained it to you, Jeff.
Q: So the mayor calls you.
A:The mayor calls me to find out what’s going on, yes.
Q: Who would be in charge if a small nuclear bomb went off downtown?
A:Well, again, the incident really drives who’s in charge, who takes charge. Obviously, the local government has a big responsibility in the incident you just described, you’re going to have a large federal presence simply because the resources to deal with that only the federal government has.
Q: Well, you have the fire trucks, ambulances.
A:We have those types of things. But obviously in a nuclear event you’re going to have a huge swatch of area.
Q: What would happen if a small nuke went off near the White House right now? You’d have an immediate area of damage, but then other things, like a radiation plume moving right toward your office. It could be there in 10 minutes, so you guys would be radiated here.
Q: So if it happened right now what would you do?
A:If it happened right now, the first thing we would do is notify some federal officials and get some assets that would help us provide immediate assistance, to get as many people away from ground zero, if you will, try to do the best thing we can to coordinate that area so that no one gets into it. We have plume modeling equipment here in our office. So I would ask my plume-modeling folks to as quickly as they can let me know where that plume is going to be, so we can start evacuating people. We would be sending out text alerts, a reverse 911, to anyone in the district who has a listed telephone number, explaining to them what actions to take, which areas to evacuate. We would also immediately pick up our emergency hot line to all the emergency agencies explaining to them what happened, where we are trying to evacuate people to, such as VDOT, so we can start our evacuation routes to West Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina.
Q: Let’s talk about evacuation routes. You know what evacuation is like during rush hour. If I were a terrorist, I’d strike right during rush hour, just like when the June 13 incident happened. Practically speaking, there is no evacuation possibility, is there?
A:Evacuation will be tough. I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise. And again, during a scenario like you proposed, there would be a lot of panic, a lot of chaos. I think that when word got out that it was a nuclear device, clearly people would be trying to get as far away from the detonation area as fast as they can. I don’t think there’s any question of that.
Q: What about stockpiles of water and medical supplies? Can you talk about that?
A:We do have stockpiles of medical supplies. We also will be requesting assistance — again, this is going back to what I said earlier, about contacting the federal government about what kind of supplies we don’t have. We have stockpiles of medical supplies, but again, in this kind of scenario, we would be quickly overwhelmed. So we would reach out to the federal government and ask for a presidential designation, which would be immediately granted, that would allow us access to their strategic national supplies. We have our own, which would probably get us through the first 72 hours. The plan is that within several hours, those supplies can be available anywhere in the country.
Q: What about “sheltering in place,” as its called. The federal government says it has plans for its employees to shelter in place, and have stockpiled supplies there, but when we reported on it a few years ago, most of them didn’t have supplies and the employees hadn’t ever heard of it.
A: In the last year the National Capital Planning Commission has been working on sheltering in place and a capital evacuation plan. We’ve identified the shelters for people to go to, but one of the challenges in any incident is getting people to understand whether to shelter in place. So what we’ve done is — again, the reverse 911 text messaging system, if you sign up for that at the 72hours.dc.gov Web site that we have. What we’ll try to do is to get people information on whether they should shelter in place, whether they should go to a shelter, or whether they should evacuate. We’ll try to get that information out to them. We’re also working with businesses. In fact, we just made contact with the Business Improvement District on security plans for the buildings, for evacuation and shelter plans. We already have some basic information on our Web site they can download, and we’re trying to get more fidelity to that, and to work with the business owners as well as the building managers where they can have the training and education with the people who reside in their buildings. But you know, the private entities, we can’t force them to do that.
Q: Are the shelters marked, like yellow radiation signs on the nuclear war shelters during the Cold War?
A:Our shelters are marked within the District government. We’ve identified 39 shelters within the District government that we own. You can go on our Web site and get a list of where those shelters are, as well as our evacuation routes. You can put in your address and it will tell you the closest shelter and evacuation route.
Q: Yes, but in a power outage, the electricity is out, and during an emergency I’m not thinking about going to my computer, especially if I’m in a blast area. So if I’m not online, how do I find out where to go?
A:This past March we sent out 150,000 brochures to everyone who is a District resident, so you should have gotten one, that laid out what the evacuation plan was. And do you subscribe to The Washington Post? You should have gotten one.
Q: Was it in the Sunday plastic packet of ads?
Q: I throw those away.
A: Well, I can’t help you if you throw it in the trash.
Q: Is that it? Is that enough to get the word out?
A: No, it’s not, but we’re trying to use every means we can. We send them into the homes, we hand them out at community meetings. In fact, I think we’ve put out about 400 of these brochures at community meetings in the last month alone. We do the mailings, we do the 72hours.dc.gov Web site, we have individual brochures that we’re going to be putting out in libraries, District office buildings, basically anywhere there’s a large traffic of people going in and out of the facilities. So we’re trying to use every medium we have to get the word out. Again, if people throw the information out, I’m not sure how we can control that.
Q: I’m not trying to pick on you, but let’s say people are smart enough to save their brochure. Are they going to be thinking, “Where’s my brochure?” after a nuclear attack?
A:Well, we try to do as much as we can. We have a very active community plan. We do community-based training within the neighborhoods, with certain qualified civilian emergency response teams.
Q: You have response teams that go into neighborhoods?
A:We do, we actually do. We do this all the time. We have 39 emergency cluster plans for an emergency situation. And we have just issued a contract where we’re going to expand that into more neighborhoods. Basically, it’s along the lines of the Neighborhood Watch, where we try to identify individuals, whether through their churches, their ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner), Boys and Girls clubs, whatever, to train them in emergency management principles, and how to train others in emergency management procedures for the first 72 hours.
Q: You have identified 39 individuals in 39 neighborhoods and trained them?
A: Yes, we have, and we’re expanding that through this contract that we’ve just awarded.
Q: Let’s talking about what happened with traffic during the June 13 incident. People described a total gridlock, chaos.
A:I’m not going to sit here and say we had a perfect response. There are things we need to do better. We were trying to get our arms around what was going on, to send response teams out to those intersections. The MPD was trying to do the same.
Q: What happened? Can you explain why police weren’t in those intersections?
A:Well, again, I’m not going to debate whether the police were or weren’t in the intersections.
Q: They weren’t, by many accounts.
A:Well, I disagree with that, but I’m not going to sit here and debate that with you. But I believe our transportation department, and the Metropolitan Police Department, grave the best response they could have done, but we’re committed to doing it better, and that’s what we’re working towards.
Q: What about the emergency backup generator, that wasn’t used to get the lights turned back on?
A: The reason why we didn’t do that was, based on the information we had from PEPCO, we felt it would not have been productive to get those generators on, that the situation would have been over by the time we got those generators on. I think it’s also important to note — and I’m not offering this as an excuse or anything like that — that when you have a situation like that, trying to get people out, first-responders who have to respond, getting them out there is so a challenge. And so we’re trying to get through the traffic, we’re trying to do all sorts of things, and again, the best way to complete this was to get as many boots on the ground as possible, and again, based on the information we received from PEPCO.
Q: Are you going to have table-top exercises based on that scenario?
Q: Or have you had table tops on that scenario?
A: Yes, we have.
Q: So when it actually happened, it didn’t work out very well. The reality was different.
A: Well, table top is never going to simulate the real things. Having said that, there are lot of scenarios we can simulate because we can go to a training facility or something like that. It’s very difficult to simulate the power going instantaneously out and grid locking traffic. I’m open to any suggestions if you have any.
Q: Why is it difficult to simulate a massive instantaneous power outage and gridlock? I mean, isn’t that at the heart of it?
A: It’s at the heart of it, but how do I get thousands of commuters on the street in the middle of rush hour and practice getting all our emergency-responders out there?
Q: I’m talking about a table top exercise.
A: You can, but how do I simulate, say, it happening during a shift change with thousands of officers coming and going and stuff like that?
Q: Why not?
A:You can’t simulate that in a table top. How do you simulate that? How do you brings thousands of cars and people into the city and simulate that?
Q: Maybe we’re not talking about the same thing. I’m talking about pushing pieces around on a board. I’m talking about going through theoretical exercises where you can anticipate —
A:I’m talking about full field exercises. A table top exercise cannot simulate things on the ground. There are some things you just cannot simulate. I cannot simulate thousands of cars on the streets of the District, at the height of rush our, at 7:30 in the morning, during an attack.
Q: I really think we’re talking about different things. I’m talking about a game with all you emergency people sitting around a table or whatever with a map of D.C. and you’re dealt a card that says, ‘the power’s out at such-and-such a station’ and another card, with something else happening. You game it.
A:That’s a table top exercise. But I’m saying without people actually on the street. . . . I can do that. But again, that doesn’t simulate the actual event, with people doing things to solve the problem. We game it all the time, not necessarily with cards, but we’ll say, ‘OK, such and such a station went out , there’s power out at Washington Hospital Center and such-and-such intersections.’ We can run through a concept of operations, about what we would do and send, and the resources and tools you need. But nothing, absolutely nothing in that is going to get you to where you get the real event, as in a full-scale exercise. I can do a full scale exercise on, say, a chemical attack, at Fort Belvoir, or the fire and police facilities at White Plains. But to my mind — and I’ve been doing this a long time — there’s nothing I can do, outside a full field exercise, that would simulate what would happen if we’ve got gridlock and the lights going out. And if I did that the citizens would hang me in effigy.
Q: But all I’m talking about is all you emergency officials sitting in a room and saying ‘we know from June 13 that we’ll have difficulty getting officers in cars to gridlocked intersections, so we’ve got to think about and plan for that now.’
A: We do think about that, about alternatives. But again, there’s no way to come up with alternatives until you have the actual situation. And that’s what I tried to explain to you earlier. What we’ve done, we’ve looked at what happened on June 13, and we’re trying to develop additional alternatives, because you learn from each of these events, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We know we did some things wrong, and we’re trying to learn from those things. I don’t want to keep going round and around about this.
Q: So you have an alternative plan, you know from what happened on June 13, you have an alternative plan right now to get those officers there.
A:We are developing alternatives based on what we learned from that event —
Q: So, say, you will use helicopters, scooters —
A:Our job, as professional emergency managers, is to take what we’ve learned from events and update our plans. And that’s what we’ve done.
Q: I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. Is it fair to say that right now you do not, right now, have an alternative to getting police into the intersections in a gridlock situation?
A: No, it is not fair to say that. You’re not listening to me. What I’m saying is we learn from every event, and from every event you learn you can do things better. We have plans.
Q: Name an alternative to getting officers into intersections during a power meltdown and a huge gridlock.
A: I’m not going to sit here and try to name every little thing we do. All I’m saying to you is that we constantly assess our procedures and we try to do better. And I can’t explain it to you any other way. So I think we’ve explored this area enough.
Jeff Stein can be reached at [email protected].