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Homeland Security: How Not To Instill Confidence

Or so Jeff Stein’s latest from Congressional Quarterly could be alternatively titled. As it stands, the interview with Washington, DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency interview is titled D.C. Homeland Security Chief Predicts Chaos in Event of Nuke Attack.

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.

A: Yeah.

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.

To be sure, Darrell Darnell’s task in any such event would be daunting, to say the least. And some level of chaos is, quite frankly, unavoidable amid the civilian panic that would certainly ensue.

That said, there is an awful lot in Mr. Darnell’s answers that leave much to be desired and little that instills much confidence that the challenges of unavoidable initial chaos and panic would be quickly overcome. Certainly not at the local level in DC.

For instance, one might find more confidence in an answer that, rather than deferring to ‘plume model’ software and experts, the head of DC’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency had said something like, “Well, I would check wind direction and immediately make calls for evacuations within X miles of the blast (depending on estimated weapon size) and outlying areas beyond the blast in the direction of the blowing wind. Later, within minutes likely, we could adjust the evacuation scope based upon plume models.”

Tough job to be sure. You just wish you walked away with more of a sense of ‘in charge until someone takes it’ than ‘holding the fort until someone else arrives’ and deferring to others. Take the bull by the horns, Mr. Darnell. Own it.