This is a disaster area

When it rains, it pours — it pours human excrement into the Anacostia River, that is, if “it” is the D.C. sewer system. Last October the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave the Anacostia an “F” for (among other problems) the vast quantities of raw sewage that fill the river every time it rains.

But in February, a staff report by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) said the problem with the D.C. sewer system is that it can’t dump feces into the Anacostia fast enough. Remember last June when a mere rainstorm shut down part of the Metro and flooded the National Archives and IRS buildings? The rain overloaded the sewer. That sorry event was the impetus for the NCPC’s study, which also found that a levee on the National Mall is in urgent need of enhancement. Until improvements to these systems are made, fellow Washingtonians, if you see big water in the forecast, flee.

Oops! An October “Emergency Evacuation Report Card” commissioned by the American Highway Users Alliance and the American Bus Association gave the District a grade of “F” for its evacuation capabilities. This city is even more un-leavable than New Orleans, according to these folks. So shelter-in-place, then.

Oops again! A “Ready or Not?” report released in December by the Trust for America’s Health, a private watchdog group, found the District to be “Not.” Insufficient public health labs, nursing personnel and pneumonia vaccination among elderly folks earned the city a disaster-preparedness score of five out of 10. Another “F.”

All this would seem to make Washington, D.C., ripe for a Katrina-style disaster-quagmire, whether from storm, bird flu or terrorist attack.

As if in the interest of preparing young legal minds for this inevitability, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) sent a couple dozen law students to New Orleans for spring break to participate in something of a large-scale legal clinic.

On April 9 the students recounted their experience to a group of their peers at UDC’s Northwest campus. They had helped locals obtain proof of home ownership for insurance claims and federal rebuilding grants, advocated for day laborers’ rights and renovated a house. The most outstanding accomplishment? Springing dozens from jail.

Louisiana law requires that a person face trial within one year of being charged with a misdemeanor. After Katrina, plenty of people were left to rot behind bars for much longer. “Katrina time,” they call it. So the UDC students bellied up to the lawyer table.

“We were like proud mamas and papas when they were sitting at counsel table and they sprung 39 people who were locked up unjustly,” said law school dean Shelley Broderick.

This is an important lesson to bring home, considering that even after a $12 million settlement last year, the D.C. Jail on Capitol Hill still has this same problem. Another class-action suit brought by over-detained inmates is currently working its way through federal court, with all bets on it success. If it takes multiple settlements before this problem gets fixed, imagine the amount of pointless incarceration that will occur in the wake of a serious disaster.

One UDC law student brought up the District’s F-rating in the transportation study, and used it to explain why she valued her experience in New Orleans as part of her legal education. “I don’t think the government has my best interest in mind,” she said, “and it never will.”

 


Emancipation day

 

The District put on some major festivities in honor of Emancipation Day. This is a brand-new holiday for Washingtonians to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s freeing of slaves in the District on April 16, 1862, nine months before the famous Emancipation Proclamation. (The District also bears the distinction of being the only place where slaveowners were compensated by the government for freeing their “property.”)

The city sought to draw a parallel between the emancipation of D.C. slaves and the modern struggle for voting rights in Congress. But not too close a parallel.

The voting-rights measure pending in Congress isn’t mentioned on any “Emancipation 2 Representation” brochures, lest the District draw the ire of someone like Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). Tiahrt made a big stink last year over the District’s allocating funds for D.C. Vote and two other advocacy organizations. By congressional decree, it’s illegal for the city to use its money for voting-rights lobbying, so specific mention of bills is prohibited.

Last April the District observed its first public Emancipation Day holiday. This year governors from Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada and North Carolina declared Emancipation Days of their own in support of the District.

 


Roadmap for success

 

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has proposed revising the hideous zone map found in all D.C. taxicabs. Good news, ’cause this old map looks like it was designed deliberately to confuse passengers. Like, it doesn’t have roads on it. And north isn’t up.

But the Taxicab Commission is unsatisfied with the new design. At its March 14 meeting, commission members lamented that the new street lines might be confused with zone lines, and that the map is a bit small. Interim Chairwoman Doreen Thompson did acknowledge some improvements, though:

“One of the things it does, it does orient the zones in terms of a true north-south orientation,” she said. And, even better:
“You know, our current zone map doesn’t actually show — or it shows maybe one or two streets. The map that DDOT’s recommending has a number of streets. You can see that Connecticut Ave. runs straight through the city north-south.”
A map with streets! And north going up! Thompson says the commission will look at the design again in May.
Until then, we’re stuck with the unrecognizable brown blob, which essentially permits drivers to dupe any person unfamiliar with the zone system.

More importantly: What’s happening with meters? Former Mayor Anthony Williams supported ditching zones for meters, and the devices were put in a handful of cabs as a pilot project last year. And, just to make sure we did it, last October Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) inserted a provision into a D.C. budget bill requiring the city to adopt a meter system within one year. (Levin’s congressional predecessors banned meters in 1933.)

Months ago the commission received a report on the meter experiment from the people in charge of it at George Washington University. The panel sent it back with questions, Thompson says, and it hopes to get answers within a few weeks and then make a final decision.

Anybody who lives on the Hill ought to be dying for some kind of change. It’s a familiar experience to be denied a ride by cabbies unwilling to travel to this neighborhood. Mayor Williams nominated Lynne Breaux to the Taxicab Commission last year, but unfortunately that nomination was withdrawn out of deference to the incoming Adrian Fenty administration. In addition to being executive director of Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), Breaux is a non-driving Hill resident who would have been a great advocate on the commission for folks who can’t get a ride. Fenty has not re-nominated Breaux (RAMW supported Linda Cropp’s bid for mayor, after all).