As Chevy Chase Patch reported this week, “…the place to be in Chevy Chase during the derecho was the Village of Friendship Heights…all of the village’s power lines are under those streets, and village residences remained powered-up and air-conditioned throughout the derecho aftermath.”
Many will be surprised to discover that Friendship Heights, which is almost entirely occupied by high-rise residential buildings, “has the highest population density of any census designated place in the United States”. In a demographic report from Montgomery County from 1995, the County noted that in Friendship Heights:
- One in three persons are over the age of 65
- Nearly 60% of residents live alone
- Nearly 40% of residents that live alone are over the age of 65
- 15.3% of Friendship Heights is age 75 or older (compared to the County statistic of 9.3%)
Recognizing that we have a disproportionately large number of senior citizens in Friendship Heights means that we need to be specially prepared for emergencies–such as utility failure.
Friendship Heights can learn from past disasters. In 1995, Chicago experienced a terrible heatwave accompanied by utility failure. The result was an estimated 750 deaths in a period of five days. The majority of those that died during the Chicago heatwave were persons over the age of 65. Afterwards, the major vulnerabilities were identified as being:
- Living alone
- Not leaving home daily
- Lacking access to transportation
- Being sick or bedridden
- Not having social contacts nearby
- Not having access to an air conditioner
Without a doubt, those vulnerabilities are present in Friendship Heights. While Friendship Heights was very lucky to have power throughout the derecho and its aftermath, if power had failed and residents were stuck in high-rise buildings without being able to use the elevators, air conditioners, or even phones–the outcome could have been significantly worse.
My recommendation is that each high-rise building in Friendship Heights must have an annexed emergency operations plan with incident-specific plans and checklists for hazards such as utlity failure, hyperthermia, earthquakes, telecommunications failures and other recent hazards that the Village has experienced. The plans should be submitted to the Village Council for review annually and should include the opportunity for feedback from residents and County officials (such as Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, Montgomery County Office of Aging and Disabilities).
The Village of Friendship Heights ought to consider creating a Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee. The committee could examine regional plans and advocate for the Village in County emergency preparedness planning efforts. The Village has too much at risk to not be vocal and active in preparing for emergencies.
While the Village recently dodged the “derecho bullet”, let’s not be lulled into complacency. The derecho should be a wake-up call for all residents in Chevy Chase to re-examine our emergency preparedness and work together as a community to avoid that 1995 Chicago heatwave tragedy.
Todd Jasper is a federal emergency manager and has been happy to call Chevy Chase home since 2008. His emergency management blog is www.toddjasper.com.