Sherwood's Notebook: Echoes of the 2002 Sniper Fear

Many of you remember nervously looking around as you filled your gas tank.

Others decided not to dine out at a restaurant, take a walk or grocery shop.

And parents worried more than a little as they took their children to school.

It was 23 days of terror in the Washington region. October 2002.

The “Beltway snipers” were at work.

John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 people and critically wounded three others. Several million people in the Washington area worried who would be next and when.

“That fear was so palpable. … It was overwhelming,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, appearing on the WAMU 88.5 Politics Hour on Friday. “That was unlike anything I had ever experienced. … It was just so frightening.”

Kaine was lieutenant governor in 2002. He would be governor when the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings occurred, a slaughter that left 32 people dead and 17 others wounded.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Kaine and former D.C. emergency manager Peter LaPorte were on the Kojo Nnamdi show discussing how governments and citizens react during crises.

“First, you really have to have valid communications,” Kaine said, noting that in the splintered media world of the Web, rumors and misinformation can fly around the world in a flash. “If you have a trusted source of information [out front], people will pay attention. That’s very important,” he said.

LaPorte, who also headed emergency management for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, marveled at how Boston was able to shut down its entire mass transit system.

“[It] was quite remarkable,” LaPorte said, “a lot of people already were in the system.” He called the shutdown and the Boston manhunt that followed “unprecedented. I don’t think anyone has seen it in the history of our country.” It was a real case of people “sheltering in place,” rather than racing for their cars to escape to their homes or other locations.

Both Kaine and LaPorte emphasized that government officials and first responders must “practice, practice, practice” to respond properly to mass events, including natural disasters.

“What you do in a crisis depends on how much you prepare for the crisis,” said Kaine, a former mayor of Richmond.

“We need to continue to do drills — and not just for show,” said LaPorte.

But LaPorte said the Washington region, despite efforts at cooperation, is not doing enough preparation. He said it’s difficult to do real-time, real-world exercises because they can be disruptive to normal business and commuting.

“But again,” he said, “we really do need to kick the tires and test it. … We’ve never really done it here.”

LaPorte now is a private consultant on security matters. He says the Washington region faces distinct challenges. In places like Boston, there is one city and one state government all bound together.

In the Washington region, he said, there are governors of Maryland and Virginia plus the mayor of Washington. Those three officials must cooperate across state lines. And then there is the wide-ranging federal presence in the nation’s capital, with the president, Congress, federal agencies and military services.

The Secret Service here can be expected to take control of any significant event affecting or threatening the president, LaPorte said. But he emphasized all of the governments, including the suburban counties, need to be all on the same page.

“It’s a challenging footprint here,” LaPorte said with considerable understatement.

And all of this must occur while balancing security with the freedom that makes the country unique, both men said. “That balance is harder and harder to strike,” Kaine said.

But it must be considered in anything the security forces plan, your Notebook said on the radio program, or we’re not defending a free country. We’d be defending something else.

■ A final word. Despite all of the dreary violence above, it was good to see “The Pothole Killer” back out on the streets of Washington Monday. It’s a good-natured name for the hulking machine that scrapes, fills and seals potholes with just one operator instead of requiring a crew of three or four to do the work. The District government contracts for three of the one-man-band pothole fillers. They come out after each winter to repair holes that sprout with changing weather and water pressure on the roadways.

But potholes aren’t what they used to be in our city.

Ever since then-Mayor Tony Williams set the city on an aggressive remake of the roads, pothole complaints have dropped dramatically.

(And yes, the Notebook realizes this is a virtual invitation for you to send me a note telling me where some egregious pothole lies in wait. You can call 311 to make a formal report. The city says it will fill any pothole reported within 48 hours during this monthlong spring offensive.)

Williams — followed by Adrian Fenty and now Mayor Vincent Gray — thought it important to fix the city roads. As someone who drives around the entire city, here’s a thank-you to all of them. We also should point out that Monday’s pothole event with Gray was done in Ward 4, which happens to be home to mayoral challenger Muriel Bowser. We asked the mayor on NBC4 if there were any “political potholes” in his appearance to undercut Bowser. “Not hardly,” he replied, smiling broadly.

■ Next week. The winner of this week’s special election.

Follow Tom Sherwood on Twitter at @tomsherwood

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