FEMA Calls 2011 an “Unprecedented” Year of Disasters for Washington Area

Regional administrator MaryAnn Tierney walks us through the year in natural disasters and what you can do to prepare for the next one.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

People gather on L Street, Northwest, after the August 23 earthquake. Photograph by Kyle Gustafson.

MaryAnn Tierney, the regional administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the Mid-Atlantic, gives reasonably good marks to the manner in which the Washington area responded to an “unprecedented” series of potentially disastrous events in 2011. In an interview, Tierney recalls the August 23 earthquake, the August 27 arrival of Hurricane Irene, and the arrival soon after by Tropical Storm Lee as substantial events for the metro area, especially considering their timing. “You have to look at those disasters in the context of one another, coming back to back to back.”

Tierney says 2011 was one of the busiest “disaster years” on record, meaning the President declared more disasters nationwide than in recent history. On that basis, she says, the Washington area is “a microcosm of what happened nationally.”

Tierney, who is based in Philadelphia, was actually in FEMA’s Washington headquarters when the 5.8 earthquake hit at 1:51 PM. “I was stepping off an elevator,” she says. “I went immediately to the control center with the FEMA administrator and other senior staff and contacted officials in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.” The quake was the first of its strength in the area since 1897, and the impact was felt from the epicenter near Mineral, Virginia, up to New York City and beyond. In Washington, both the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral suffered cracks and breakage, and are still undergoing repairs.

Tierney gives good marks to the Washington area’s earthquake response. “I think for an event that is that rare, we did a fairly good job,” she says.

Hurricane Irene was not only a real storm but also a media storm, with intense alarm sounded along the Atlantic Coast. Many coastal enclaves were evacuated, including Ocean City and parts of New York City. The planned dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in DC was postponed. “I’ve been involved in hurricane planning for a long time,” Tierney says. “It’s extremely complicated from an emergency standpoint. Given the size of the storm coming up the coast, the preparations were right.” She says the response was “well done.” It ended up being not as severe as expected, but still quite damaging from wind and rain. Tropical Storm Lee was more of a rain event, especially north of the Washington area, in Pennsylvania.

The cost of these three concurrent events was also unprecedented, according to the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region. The organization spent more than usual housing individuals whose homes were damaged by the earthquake, the hurricane, or flooding during the tropical storm. After Lee, the Red Cross sheltered hundreds in Prince William County alone.

While it didn’t make FEMA’s list of so-called “major declarations,” most Washingtonians will remember the heavy “thundersnow” storm on January 27 that caused one of the worst evening commutes in memory. It hit during the late afternoon, and some people spent eight or nine hours in gridlock; even President Obama’s motorcade was affected. When the chaos was over, the area was under five to ten inches of wet snow, and hundreds of thousands of residents were without power. Five deaths were attributed to the storm.

Tierney doesn’t mean to be the voice of doom and gloom, but she cautions, “Just because we had a series of bad disasters in 2011 does not mean we’re spared for 2012. People should look to what happened in 2011 to prepare themselves.” Her tips are “get a kit, make a plan, be informed, and get involved.” She also recommends a new local website, Capitalert, where subscribers can get “instant, official information in emergencies” from police, firefighters, and emergency managers like her.