Preparing for the next earthquake…and what Rex Grossman and the Redskins can teach us

The editorial in this morning’s Washington Post asked if we were ready for the next earthquake (or hurricane, or tornado, or terrorist incident). The question was rhetorical; the writers chided those in local government (DC, MD, VA) for their failure to provide a coordinating framework that could direct an emergency response.

Well and good! The region, with its hodgepodge collection of local governing authorities, could surely use such a mechanism. As the editorial notes, time and again when hazards hit the region, they morph into disasters because of our failure to respond in a coordinated way. I was working downtown in 2001 and remember personally the confusion rampant on 9/11. Foremost in my mind that morning was my adult, learning-disabled son who works in a government-office mailroom just a few blocks away in the downtown area. I was carefully keeping track of his whereabouts all morning, until crunch time came, time to get together and to work our way home. Then we lost contact… for a frustrating hour.

The central tragedy – the hundreds who died that day, and the longer-term consequences of that attack.

But for hundreds of thousands, the day was also marked by such personal stories of missteps and wrong-footed actions. The memory – and it’s not a good one – of August’s earthquake here is still fresh in everyone’s mind in a similar way. People milling around on the city’s streets, without a plan or a clue of what to do and why. We can and should do better.

However, we might be more realistic about what we can hope to accomplish through any such inter-governmental coordinating mechanism.

Here’s where lessons from Sunday’s Redskins-Eagles game, another big story in that same issue of the Washington Post, might be constructive. 24 hours ago, the Redskins’ seasonal prospects seemed as bright and warm as the day’s sunshine and 70-degree-plus temperatures. The Eagles’ season, by contrast, was on the ropes. At least that’s what that same son and I hoped as we prepared for a singularly rare event – actually going to Fedex Field for the game. By day’s end, all that had changed. The Redskins lost 20-13, unable to overcome the chilling effect of four interceptions tossed by Rex Grossman.

Four interceptions.

In a single afternoon.

By NFL standards, that’s a rare achievement, maybe even more rare than four touchdown passes in a single game. But let’s look at this more closely. Rex Grossman is one of a small handful of people, numbering no more than 50-100 worldwide, capable of quarterbacking a game at this level. He’s part of a team that obsessively practices passing against splendid defenses. Daily. In each case, by Grossman’s own retelling, yesterday’s interceptions represented no more than a fraction of a second’s hesitation, or the slightest of underthrows. [Evident as well from the stands.] He played the game at an extraordinary level.

And was benched.

Back to our city. We are not having daily drills on responding to hazards. And these threats are unlike those highly-structured and choreographed football games. Natural hazards, industrial accidents, and willful acts of terror present themselves in a much richer variety of ways. Bewilderment is the normal.

We can have all those coordinating mechanisms in place in local government. But even the most practiced of emergency managers won’t have nearly the opportunities for rehearsal and drill available to Grossman and the Redskins. And that’s just the leadership. Remember, they’re not responsible for just eleven proficient team members and eleven opponents. They’ll be attempting to coordinate thousands and tens of thousands of us. Rank amateurs. You and me.  They’ll make all their decisions about what needs to happen, they’ll coordinate, and they’ll put out a public message, “Do this,” and “Do that.” And as President Truman said, “nothing will happen. It’s not like the army.”

[Sound familiar? Do you hear the echo of the previous post?]

So…the local governmental coordination is needed, but by itself is not enough. And suppose we could accomplish a city-wide drill once or twice a year, the way California has done with the Great California Shakeout (worth a read) and other drills. That wouldn’t suffice either.

Here’s an additional drill that would help…something we all need to do, but something you can do yourself, on an individual basis.

We can look at each other differently.

In today’s world, and especially in major cities, we act all too often as if people are competition. Or in surplus. Find yourself in a line at Starbucks, or at Chop’t, or even that line at the cupcake wagon? All those folks in front are in the way. On a crowded Metro platform? These people are going to make me miss my train. They won’t move out of the way and let me into the car. Congestion out in the suburbs on the weekend? Why are they making it impossible to get around? Where on earth can they all be going?

Instead, when we see each other, we need to be thinking a bit more along the following lines: if something were to happen just now, my life might depend on this person. In fact, if something were to happen just now, I’m committed to helping this person. We are in this together. We will get through it together.

That attitude? It’s just as important as all those drills. In the urban setting, teamwork, working together are more important than in the countryside. Cooperation in cities is actually practiced at a high level on a daily basis. You see it in the Metro station, on the roadways. All that rage and irritation? It’s about the slightest breakdown in that cooperative spirit. But as Rex Grossman and the Redskins illustrate, a high level isn’t always good enough.

Bottom line? We need to value each other.

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2 Responses to Preparing for the next earthquake…and what Rex Grossman and the Redskins can teach us

  1. Recent doings in Anaheim provide interesting sidelight to the end of the post. Mayor Tait ran – and won – on a “Kindness” campaign. The basis of the campaign is that in a crisis – for example, an earthquake affecting anaheim – people would have to rely on their neighbors as the real “first responders.” However, because of both construction and culture, many/most neighborhoods in Anaheim are more a collection of dwellings than a social unit. Neighbors don’t know each other, let alone have a basis for caring, or acting together. The Mayor is trying to overturn this, one neighborhood at a time.

    • Thanks, John. Right on. Just saying we rely on one another and need to take that more to heart isn’t nearly enough. We have to take this general notion and convert it into actionable steps that look doable and attractive.

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