WASHINGTON—Hundreds of thousands of people streamed out of the capital Monday night after a series of explosions.
No, it wasn't a terrorist attack. It was the annual Fourth of July fireworks display. District of Columbia officials used the crowded National Mall event to test the city's emergency traffic-evacuation system.
The test, which extended the lengths of green lights on seven major downtown arteries to an unprecedented three minutes, succeeded in dispersing the huge crowd in about an hour. Experts said Tuesday that cities nationwide should attempt such simulated evacuations.
District officials wanted to see whether the longer signals—usually 70 seconds in rush hour—would improve traffic or create a chaotic mess of cars and pedestrians. The city may use the same system in the event of a downtown disaster.
There was no official crowd estimate, but the fireworks display was the major downtown attraction on a day when the city's subway system alone reported that it carried more than 540,000 passengers. A report that 125,000 cars came into the city, attributed to AAA, couldn't be confirmed.
Dan Tangherlini, D.C.'s director of transportation, said the evacuation suffered a few signal malfunctions, road blockages and communications breakdowns, but that they were to be expected.
"If there were no problems, then that would have been a problem," Tangherlini said in an interview Tuesday. "We need to know where the weaknesses are."
Disaster management experts praised the simulation.
Dennis Mileti, an emeritus director of the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, called the District's evacuation test "absolutely brilliant" because it utilized an event where people wanted to leave quickly.
While they'd gotten advance notice of the test through local news media, that didn't matter, Mileti said, because people generally don't panic even in real emergency evacuations.
"If we had emergencies every week we wouldn't need to practice. But we don't, so we do," Mileti said.
Major cities should use events such as a Fourth of July celebration or Thanksgiving parade to test emergency plans, said James Lee Witt, who ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Clinton.
"You learn a great deal, and I think it's important we learn it under good conditions (rather) than extreme conditions," said Witt, who heads a Washington-based crisis management consulting firm.
On Monday night, the problems centered on Constitution Avenue, a major artery that runs along the Mall.
At the outset of the test, National Park Service officers mistakenly blocked the avenue. Also, faulty traffic-light timers gave drivers less than 30 seconds between red lights to get across a key intersection. To make matters worse, pedestrians swarmed into the intersection, defying drivers' right-of-way. Authorities cleared these problems about 20 minutes into the 45-minute test. It began 15 minutes after the fireworks display ended, just as the first visitors reached their parked cars.
"We tried it, it works and we're very happy about it," Deputy Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau said in an interview Monday night at the department's command center.
"The real thing we need to evaluate now is how that would replicate in an emergency," Pourciau said while watching a bank of about 40 TV screens displaying traffic intersections.
In coming weeks, city and federal officials will seek solutions to problems the test revealed.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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