Don't Be in DC in a Crisis

A strange sight greeted me Monday afternoon as I came strolling back home from an outing for groceries and a visit to the doctor. (I have had trouble breathing of late, and think that the mold, mildew, muck and slime of living the last eight years, more or less, in Mordor-on-the-Potomac may have induced a nice, unpleasant case of asthma in me.) A little white plastic bag was hanging on the doorknob of our apartment: a gift of some kind from some "neighbor" we didn’t know we had.

"More free crap," I said to Jennifer, taking it off and hanging it on my bicycle handlebars while I fiddled with my door keys.

But the printing on the bag — "Be Ready, Alexandria!" — showed that this wasn’t going to be just any unwanted bag of welcome wagon free junk. It was a folder of lists and tips from something called Citizen Corps (motto: "Uniting communities, preparing the nation." Why haven’t I heard of this sinister-sounding group before?). And with the disaster of Katrina fresh in mind, as well as the ever present danger that something will go kaboom! nearby, someone apparently believed it was high time that Jennifer and I prepare to take care of ourselves and possibly work with our neighbors in that eventuality.

Because it’s clear, even when the reassuring voice of government says "prepare, prepare, prepare" (or perhaps because it), that we’re utterly on our own.

Jen and I both grew up, more or less, in earthquake-prone California. We know all about preparing for disasters — you could not be a child in the California public schools, even bad ones like I went to (bad California public schools, now there is an oxymoron) and not hear something, occasionally, about preparing for "The Big One" and what that meant. We also have both lived through a couple of fairly significant earthquakes, the last one being Loma Prieta in 1989, though they really weren’t that bad for us. But those earthquakes did demonstrate the clear capriciousness, brutality and utter callousness of nature. And our powerlessness in its face.

And being at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, has left me with a lingering unease that just about anything could happen to anyone at anytime. Wherever you are, look for the exits. And keep them in mind.

There is, of course, the checklist of a zillion things that you need to have in the event the unspeakable happens (outlined as "everything from house fires to severe weather to pandemic flu to potential acts of terrorism"). The food list suggests one gallon of water per person, per day for three days, plus all kinds of dried and foil-wrapped foods to survive. And a non-electrical can opener (pop quiz: how many of you can use a can opener on a Swiss Army knife or the old can openers that used to come with US Army C-Rations?) There’s enough medicine on the list to equip a paramedic (Ipecac? Laxatives? Antacid?), demands everyone carry a "road atlas" and, of course, that ever present and much-derided roll of duct tape.

Duct tape, our very, very best friend.

Of all the advice that the Citizen Corps gives, the one that constantly jumps out is "make a plan." There’s even a web site,, which is supposed to help you and you family make a plan. Since I live with the threat of disaster in the back of my mind, and have for years (and likely would regardless of how many office buildings I’d worked right next to had been attacked by suicide jetliners), making a plan seems obvious. I work in the District, and Jennifer and I have discussed the various kinds of disasters that could happen here — car bombs, poison bugs or toxins, mushroom clouds — and what to do.

Even given the existential fear that permeated the country during the Cold War (the duck and cover drills, of bomb shelters and survival biscuits) I frankly find all of this — the kinds of things we, the freest people in the world and residents of the capital of the freest country in the whole Free World, have to think about — extremely depressing. I take comfort in knowing that the benighted denizens of less-free, less prosperous and less wonderful places like Wellington, Montevideo, Bern, Gaborone or Ulaan Baator don’t have to worry about such nonsense. But then, the citizens of none of those countries live with the incalculable benefits of their superpower governments and all the wonderful ways that makes their lives so much better.

Such unlucky people. I would like to be so unfortunate someday.

Katrina showed everyone in America — rich and poor, black and white, urban, suburban and rural — that Uncle Sam and his nephews and nieces in uniform across this great land are no help. In fact, based on everything I’ve read, they are actually a hindrance, a road block between honest, decent people who want to help and have the means to do so and those who honestly and sincerely need that assistance. I’m not sure if that is the purpose of Bush-era "disaster relief" organizations, or merely a by-product of the Bush administration’s approach to crony capitalism, that government exists solely or largely to ensure the profitability of certain well-connected corporations and individuals. We can argue the point later, I suppose, since the end-result is the same — people suffer and die because the biggest organization in our society that supposedly plans and stockpiles supplies for this kind of thing (whether it should or not, our government plans for an astounding number of contingencies) was unprepared.

The lesson is clear: You are on your own.

There is, however, an additional complication for us living and working within the fetid swamps of Mordor-on-Potomac. In the event of a serious and lengthy crisis — category 5 hurricane, flooding on the river, great big kaboom somewhere in the city — the government will be so damn busy saving its own damn self and everyone "critical to the mission" that not only will it not have the time or inclination to help any of us, there is a very good likelihood that as we — the very subjects of Mordor whose livelihoods are taxed to provide for its sustenance — scramble to save ourselves, we will "get in the way."

I’ll lay a wager today: that what we saw in Louisiana, with the denial of essential supplies and aid to people stranded by the storm and the flooding, will be a nifty, happy party game in comparison to what could happen if frightened people and a terrified Leviathan simultaneously scramble around each other to save themselves. A lot of ants — you and me — are going to get mushed on that day, and the days that follow.

Jen and I don’t have a car, but our disaster plan considers that. We have the saddlebags on our bicycles, as well as tow-trailer that can hold a lot. A few clothes, the portable hard drive, the rifle and ammunition (in pieces in the trailer if necessary; slung over my shoulder if absolutely necessary), some clothes, what dry food we can carry, and every one of our portable shortwave radios. Any plans that have us abandoning our apartment lead first to our church. If there’s no way to come back, well, we’ll worry about that if that time comes. If lots of people are leaving, abandoning Mordor for gentler places far away, well, traffic may be heavy but it will likely not move fast. (On the other hand, I hate biking in the rain, though I don’t mind so much if it is warm and will clearly do it if my life depends on it…) In a really big disaster, martial law will be imposed and police and soldiers likely deployed with "shoot-to-kill" orders anyway. We don’t plan on braving the streets in that event unless death is certain in any case.

Gotta save that government, you know. Hardly matters if there are people to govern. But the government must, at all costs, be saved.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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