Terrorism Could Hurl D.C. Area Into Turmoil

Deputy Mayor Edward D. Reiskin, left, and Thomas J. Lockwood of the Office of National Capital Region Coordination observe the city's Fourth of July test.
Deputy Mayor Edward D. Reiskin, left, and Thomas J. Lockwood of the Office of National Capital Region Coordination observe the city's Fourth of July test. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Sari Horwitz and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 11, 2005

The U.S. Capitol and the White House have been fortified, police forces strengthened, high-tech security equipment purchased, vulnerable streets closed and checkpoints and barriers erected. In all, federal, state and local governments have spent more than $2 billion to protect the Washington area since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Despite these efforts, security officials in the region concede that they fear another major terrorist strike would result in the kind of chaos and confusion seen along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Even those who helped spend the money envision gridlock on the Capital Beltway as residents flee after a truck bombing at the Capitol or a chemical attack on Metro. They see D.C. police, U.S. Capitol Police, the FBI, U.S. Park Police and the departments of Homeland Security and Defense scrambling to figure out who is in charge, strained hospitals overwhelmed with thousands of people in need of medical care and confused downtown workers from the District, Maryland and Virginia who don't know what to do.

On the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation's capital lacks a comprehensive way to tell people what to do in a state of emergency, especially a terrorist attack with no warning, according to law enforcement and Homeland Security officials involved in emergency preparations.

"What we lack is a coordinated public information system in the event of a major incident," said David Snyder, a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' homeland security task force. "What we need is a system that will function instantaneously and automatically every time. . . . That doesn't exist now."

Complicating the planning is the fact that officials don't know exactly what they are planning for. A tornado would require a different response than a dirty bomb at the Capitol or a smallpox attack on Metro. And officials are not going to have to communicate just among themselves but also tell a panicked public what to do and where to go. Sometimes the edict would be to evacuate, other times to stay put.

After watching the bedlam in New Orleans after Katrina, Washington area officials said they are concerned about how much help they would get from the federal government and how quickly it would come.

"For four years, we've been hearing from the feds that they are going to take charge so we can respond to any catastrophe that comes our way," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "And here's the first major test, and it's a failure. . . . I've lost confidence in [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to come in and be part of the solution.

"We've got to take all the plans that relied on the federal government and throw them out and start over again," Duncan said.

Regional leaders held a news conference last week to kick off the $4.5 million National Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Campaign, urging residents to prepare kits with food, water and emergency supplies. In other words, residents again are being told to stock up on duct tape.

Failed Tests

Police, health and emergency officials from across the Washington area say that since Sept. 11, 2001, the region has made significant strides in preparing for all kinds of emergencies, including biological and chemical attacks, coordinated bombings and natural disasters.

They point to elaborate local and regional evacuation plans that have been developed, tested, revised and tested again. More than 2,500 federal employees from 45 agencies in the Washington area went to more than 100 secret sites for two days last year in the nation's first test of how the government could continue operating in the face of a massive terrorist attack.

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