Bringing Washington to Its Knees

Doesn’t take much these days to show the mighty United States of America just how weak and vulnerable it can be.

A couple of years ago, all it took was a handful of fanatics with box cutters to turn this nation into a mass of quivering jelly, a population of nervous nellies where fear replaces reason, overreaction replaces common sense and simple freedoms become disposable commodities.

A few weeks ago, an overloaded power grid buckled under the strain, plunging the East and Midwest into darkness and chaos and leaving utility companies spending more time pointing fingers at each other than working together to get the power back on.

Then, last week, a tropical storm with attitude shut down the federal government, left millions without power and cut a chaotic path through North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Monday, four days after Tropical Storm Isabel came ashore on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, more than a million homes still don’t have electricity, hundreds of intersections in the National Capital Region don’t have working traffic lights, dozens of streets remain impassable and most schools are still closed.

If the mighty United States of America can’t deal with an overblown windstorm, kinda makes you wonder how we ever hope to stop international terrorism. All this time, we’ve thought Osama, Saddam and their buddies were watching Al Jazerra. Why bother. All they have to watch is The Weather Channel.

We’ve been taking a lot of cold showers in the Thompson household since Thursday night. Isabel knocked out two of the three trunk lines that serve our high-rise condominium building, leaving us with lights but no hot water. But the cold showers help since the air conditioning is out as well.

Yet we’re luckier than those who live above the 10th floor. Some have electricity in some wall outlets but not others. Most are in the dark and Dominion Electric Power, Virginia’s poor excuse for a public service utility, doesn’t have the foggiest idea when the power might be back.

In many parts of McLean, residents in compounds with million dollar homes began their fourth day without power or water. Some are unable to drive away from their homes because downed trees still block the roads.

“Before the storm, I asked people to be patient,” says Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. “I’m going to ask you to be a little more patient. We’re dealing with the storm of a lifetime. We’ve been incredibly blessed that only 17 Virginians lost their lives in this storm. . . . It could have easily been 10 times that number.”

Storm of a lifetime? This wasn’t even a full-fledged hurricane. Isabel was downgraded to a tropical storm before the first raindrops even fell in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Hardly the storm of a lifetime. Screwup of a lifetime perhaps. Monumental bungle by those who are supposed to keep the electricity flowing, the water running and the traffic moving.

For years, those who are supposed to be experts in such things have warned us that America’s real vulnerabilities lie not in our military defenses or in our ability to respond to an attack by an enemy.

Our weakness, they said, is in our fragile infrastructure, that collection of wires, roads, bridges, water pipes and such that allows us to get up each morning to a cool home in the summer (or a warm one in winter), take a shower, make coffee, cook breakfast, catch the morning news on the tube and then head out the door for work.

When those things don’t work, our lives turn to chaos and the thin coating of civilization vanishes.

Doesn’t take a madman with a bomb to bring this region to its knees. Any storm in a port will do.