Yesterday marked the first time that I was involuntarily displaced from my workplace since 9/11. Thankfully, it wasn’t the imminent threat of an attack this time; rather, the overflowing Potomac River was to blame…or was it?
As the Potomac rose to flood stage at the Washington Harbour, the floodwall that had been erected for just such a scenario was not deployed. As a result, the river engulfed the area. The flooding certainly dealt a blow to the business owners in the immediate area and also caused broader impact. From traffic congestion to power outages, many of us felt the impact of the flooding. My office, several blocks from Washington Harbour, remains closed today—more than 24 hours later—due to lack of power.
The Foggy Bottom metro station was also impacted by the power loss. As I entered the station during rush hour last evening, I was not surprised to find inoperable escalators and elevators (which are often broken even without an incident), but I was struck by the darkness inside the station entrance. Lighting was better at the tracks where there were emergency lights, but why the station entrance lacked emergency lighting is inexplicable. Metro regularly runs drills in its stations for variety of incidents; why had it not taken action to install emergency lighting at the station entrance?
The consequences of the rising Potomac were almost certainly preventable. Though Mother Nature may have caused the river to rise, we cannot blame her for its consequences. As Ted Steinberg emphasizes, “natural” disasters are more often the work of humans than nature.
Nor was the incident unlikely or unanticipated. Nassim Taleb coined the term “Black Swan” to describe improbable scenarios that have potentially devastating consequences. Yesterday’s incident was hardly catastrophic, nor was it improbable. It was a rather obvious threat that the area had anticipated, as demonstrated by the construction of a floodwall. So we could call this incident a White Swan, since unlike black swans, we have all seen white swans before.
The Potomac flooding demonstrates that consequences may result from a scenario that either had been anticipated (but failures during the incident negated any preparedness actions, as was the case at Washington Harbour) or should have been anticipated (such as the lack of emergency lighting at the Metro). Hopefully the relatively minor incident reminds Washingtonians why efforts to enhance our preparedness must remain a priority almost ten years after 9/11. Should we not take our responsibilities seriously, failure will result and many will bear the burden of the consequences.