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Quake showcases difficulty of evacuating D.C.

The nation's capital has prepared for emergencies with sleek communication systems, intelligence fusion centers and chemical detection centers at train stations.

But what showed during the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that shook much of the East Coast on Tuesday was that evacuating during an emergency could tax the city's resources -- and be decidedly complex and slow.

Traffic was snarled for miles in downtown Washington as employers released workers early at the same time and thousands of commuters tried to drive home or cram onto trains already overloaded and slowed by speed restrictions because of the earthquake. Rush hour began several hours early throughout the city, and several extra frustrations -- malfunctioning traffic lights, blocked-off streets -- added to the commuting headache.

"Not that yesterday was chaos, but definitely, it was not as smooth as it could have been," said Justin Thorp, 27, a marketing manager who works downtown and who escaped the congestion with a bicycle he found through a bike-sharing program.

A strong evacuation plan is seen as especially critical for Washington, the seat of federal government and a city perpetually on guard against terrorist attacks. The president and vice president and their families enjoy Secret Service protection, and Congress has security procedures to evacuate its members. Others would have to rely on the city and its surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

A federal government report from about five years ago criticized the Washington region's emergency response plan as "not sufficient" for a catastrophic incident. The most recent response plan posted on the city's emergency management agency website, dated 2008, does describe some plans for evacuations but also suggests that it may be preferable for people to seek shelter where they are instead of trying to scramble home.

"Human beings have a propensity to take flight rather than just to stay where they are, which is a prudent decision in a lot of situations," D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said Wednesday.

On Tuesday, some traffic lights malfunctioned and several streets closed as work crews surveyed reports of damage. Drivers honked and trudged their way through the gridlock.

The experience was reminiscent, if not nearly as tortuous, as a January snowstorm that stranded some motorists for 12 hours or more. And as Hurricane Irene snakes up the East Coast in the coming days, the slow going also raises questions about Washington's capability to carry out a swift and efficient evacuation in the event of a full-blown disaster.

Lauren Fogg, 23, got out of work early but decided to stay to wait out the commute. She called the reaction to the earthquake "pandemonium."

"D.C., despite being super prepared, isn't," Fogg said.

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