Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on Monday afternoon, July 27, debunked speculation on the Internet of closures for streets, bridges and highways in the city during the visit of Pope Francis in September.
Last weekend, purported traffic details and security perimeters, complete with homemade maps, began flourishing on websites that referred to named and unnamed sources.
Nutter, along with other city officials and World Meeting of Families’ leaders, said the rumors had “no basis in fact,” and that such unfounded speculation “paints a false or misleading picture for the public.”
In his calm demeanor, he blasted the sources of the rumors as “little people with little pieces of information, or what they think is information, (who) put out what they have to make themselves larger.”
Nutter urged residents and especially the media to “resist the urge to create hoopla over inaccurate information, which can only upset people.”
He said no official information on a security perimeter for center city streets and access to the city via highways and bridges is ready to be released at this time because the city is coordinating with numerous local, state and federal agencies, plus other entities, to create a detailed plan.
Next week officials will present “significant details” of a transportation and security plan as the city tries to present information that is “comprehensive, accurate and timely,” Nutter said. “There’s nothing to be fearful about.”
One part of the plan for bringing visitors into the city is SEPTA’s intention to carry 175,000 passengers each day of the Sept. 26 and 27 visit on the Regional Rail trains. In the effort to sell special one-day passes for the events, SEPTA’s website crashed last week and no date has yet been announced when sales would resume.
Nutter expressed his “fullest confidence” that the transit agency would fix its online system and provide train service for the papal events.
In addition to the more 1.5 million people expected for the papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sunday, Sept. 27, other events will see the pontiff visiting the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul and Independence Hall in center city, plus a Northeast Philadelphia prison and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.
The events cap the World Meeting of Families, Sept. 22-25, and together they will constitute what officials have called the largest event in the city’s modern history.
Because of the event’s size and the presence of the pope as a head of state, the U.S. Secret Service in November declared it a National Security Special Event. That means the agency takes the lead in planning for security along with local, state and federal agencies.
They include the Philadelphia Police Department, Pennsylvania State Police, Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, the Philadelphia Fire Department and U.S. military and National Guard representatives, along with Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
A committee to plan the security aspects of the papal visit is composed of 23 subcommittees in various disciplines including airspace security, fire and safety, and credentialing, which manages who may move about in particular restricted areas.
Secret Service spokesman Robert Hoback, speaking with CatholicPhilly.com in a June interview, described the security planning as “a team effort, with hundreds of people. Security for an event of this size is a collaborative effort; it’s teamwork. That’s how you get something like this done.”
An announcement on transportation and public safety issues will be coming soon, containing “detailed specifications of the papal motorcade route, street closures, affected dates and times, public transportation schedules plus waterway and pedestrian restrictions,” he said.
It will also describe the kinds of items people may or may not bring to the event, and in what security areas people would be required to pass through metal detectors, Hoback said.
Normally such information is made public only two weeks before a national security event, but “with how big this is and how many lives it will affect,” Hoback said it will be released three weeks out, approximately the first full week of September.
He suggested three weeks would be enough time to help people prepare to attend, but a short enough time to deter preparations for “something nefarious,” he said. “That’s why we wait.”
Nutter echoed that concern at the July 27 press conference, noting the city has experience hosting heads of state such as Pope Francis.
“We usually don’t give long-term advance notice where he’s going to be and how he’s getting there,” the mayor said. “I’m not giving every nut case advance information of where Pope Francis is going to be.”
Nutter encouraged residents of the city and the region, and its thousands of anticipated visitors, to come for the events of September.
“We have to make plans and we’re encouraging our citizens to make plans too,” he said.
The words of encouragement were echoed at the press conference by Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families.
Although the families’ congress and papal visit will be “a once-in-a-lifetime event for the city, the archdiocese and the country,” it is different in scope from the last papal visit, by St. John Paul II in 1979, and the two cannot be adequately compared.
She expressed confidence the transportation infrastructure would work and when appropriate plans are complete and in place they will be shared with the public.
The extra preparations visitors need to take to enjoy the event will be worth it, she said.
People who are able to experience the events have to weigh the challenges of traveling by bus, train or on foot against the comfort of watching the televised events at home.
She likened the choice to experiencing Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels’ recent historic no-hitter performance from home, or watching the game at a stadium in person.
“Ask yourself,” Farrell suggested, “a year from now or 10 years from now, would you rather say you were watching it on TV, or that you were there?”