Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

A Washington Monument to Failing Resilience

More than a year after the Aug. 23, 2011 earthquake, the Washington Monument remains unrepaired

As the nation again pauses to remember the anniversary of another 9/11, it is worth noting how far our nation has come in the 11 years since “that day.” For as much as Republicans and Democrats are at one another’s throats during this high-velocity election season, I hope they could agree that we are indeed safer and better off than we were 11 years ago.

With all of the billions of dollars that have been spent on new public safety radios and equipment, improvements in training, operational coordination, and intelligence/information sharing as well as the creation of new organizations and better cooperative attitudes between all layers of the public and private sectors, there is much to be proud of. Credit for these achievements is owed not to one particular president, political party, or organization. Rather it has been a national effort involving “all of us” in some form or measure.

The word resilience is used quite often nowadays. It has become the ultimate of “buzzwords” dropped into almost any speech by someone in the homeland security/national security arena, almost as a checklist-worthy requirement. Regardless of your preferred definition, the ability to take a wicked punch and stay upright and lucid in the boxing ring called “life” is something that we all want to see happen on national, state, and local levels. It’s something that we’ve all seen tested in times like 9/11 as well as in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and other widescale incidents.

It seems unusual to associate the word “proud” with such a somber and reflective day, but in offering it, it is a metric that we should use to gauge our progress in many ways. For our post-9/11 investments and attitudes to be worthy of pride, they can never remain static. We have to be steadfast, resolute, and responsive. In short, they need to be resilient.

The word resilience is used quite often nowadays. It has become the ultimate of “buzzwords” dropped into almost any speech by someone in the homeland security/national security arena, almost as a checklist-worthy requirement. Regardless of your preferred definition, the ability to take a wicked punch and stay upright and lucid in the boxing ring called “life” is something that we all want to see happen on national, state, and local levels. It’s something that we’ve all seen tested in times like 9/11 as well as in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and other widescale incidents. We’ve learned in those incidents that we were stronger in some areas and much weaker in others than we may have wanted to admit.

Washington Monument

An image taken by a U.S. National Park Service helicopter, showing a four-foot crack in a marble slab in the center of the south face of the Washington Monument’s pyramidion. National Park Service photo

In the 11 years since 9/11, we’ve seen wonderful examples of resilience in places like Greensburg, Kan., which was literally wiped off the face of the Earth by one of the deadliest tornadoes ever recorded. The town has now come back in a newer and far more innovative way. We’ve also seen it communities caught alongside floodwaters from rising rivers or threatened by epic wildfires that consumed thousands of acres in their paths.

Anyone who has ever worked in these issues has a favorite example to cite, but as important as it is to identify the successes of resilience, it is also important to identify its failures.

For me I see that example on display every day in Washington, D.C.

Standing at 555 feet tall, the tallest structure in the District of Columbia, the white obelisk known as the Washington Monument is the tallest obelisk in the world and also the world’s tallest stone structure. Ringed by American flags, this monument to the nation’s most revered founding father has been a tourist draw for millions since it first opened to the public in 1888. Like any structure of note, age and time have inflicted wear and tear upon it. Having undergone more than a few renovations to upgrade its accessibility, security, and sustainability, the structure has given visitors from around the world some amazing views of the capitol of the free world.

Unfortunately, those views are only memories, and may remain that way for some time. As a result of the Aug. 23, 2011, 5.8 magnitude earthquake, the Washington Monument has been closed to visitors. Instead of smiling National Park Service (NPS) rangers greeting tourists, ringed fencing and posted notices about the monument’s closure are on full display. Damage to the monument’s mortar, cracked and shifted stones and other serious physical concerns resulting from the earthquake have caused the structure to be off limits for very good reasons.

As good as those reasons may be in safeguarding visitors and those in the surrounding area, the fact that the monument stands closed more than a year after the earthquake with no real immediate plan for its reopening stands in stark contrast to the post 9/11 spirit of resilience seen after the terrorist attacks.

For example, the Pentagon, which had one of its five sides fractured and burned by the impact of American Airlines Flight 77 was rebuilt brick for brick, wall for wall, in under a year.

In New York City, the World Trade Center complex, which was utterly destroyed by the two planes and resulting building collapses, was cleared of 1.45 million tons of debris in 10 months. During that time period, recovery workers also reclaimed over 1,200 victims as well as many of their personal effects.

It may seem to be unfair to compare the repair and recovery of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center sites to that of the Washington Monument. No lives were lost and there were no injuries (other than frayed nerves from those inside it) during the earthquake, whereas the Pentagon and the World Trade Centers were two of the three fateful sites of unspeakable carnage that day. Yet the attitudes and energies for reclaiming those two unique icon-like properties for their intended purposes were resolute and quickly acted upon. I don’t think that argument can be made in terms of the Washington Monument.

The NPS has certainly studied the structure, sending climbers outside of the Washington Monument for a stone-by-stone inspection. The NPS has a firm estimate of $15 million needed to pay for repairs. Congress allocated $7.5 million in funding, half of what was needed for repairs and restoration, in December 2011. The effort to restore the monument also received a matching pledge of $7.5 million from philanthropist David Rubinstein to help pay for the necessary repairs. NPS offered the project up for bids on June 29 and says it hopes to award a contract for the repairs this month, which are expected to take 12 to 18 months once begun.

Despite these steps, you will not find any overt, visible effort to show that the Washington Monument is on its way back to becoming a publicly available resource. For as much as resilience is about effective planning, information gathering and resource development, it is ultimately about action and execution – neither of which is apparent today.

Washington Monument

Rigging is looped over the tip of the Washington Monument, Sept. 27, 2011. The rigging would be used by a four-person team that would rappel down the four sides of the monument and help document damage from the Aug. 23, 2011, earthquake and later storm weather. They were also assigned to fill cracks with sealant to help protect the monument from water and ice damage until repairs could be completed. U.S. Department of Agriculture photo by Lance Cheung

I’m sure there are reasons for this state of affairs, but those reasons seem to echo as excuses and are endemic to Washington, D.C., a city now known more today for its dysfunctionality than its functionality.

There are also certainly other higher priorities for funding and action in these difficult times. Health care, support for service members, veterans and their families, improving research and development, maintaining critical infrastructure and so forth all have more immediate human value than a tall white obelisk where no one physically lives, but when you can’t repair and reopen one of the most iconic structures of the nation’s capitol (or at least physically show that you’re trying to fix it), it does not send a powerful or positive message for national resilience.

Health care, support for service members, veterans and their families, improving research and development, maintaining critical infrastructure and so forth all have more immediate human value than a tall white obelisk where no one physically lives, but when you can’t repair and reopen one of the most iconic structures of the nation’s capitol (or at least physically show that you’re trying to fix it), it does not send a powerful or positive message for national resilience.

That’s a message unworthy of 9/11 and one that needs to be corrected.

No one wants a monument to inaction and inattention, especially when it is named after one of the nation’s founders, who helped forge a country by being a man of action.

By

Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...