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.
U.S. Capitol Police have spent tens of millions of dollars on a state-of-the art command center with equipment that tracks wind currents and airplane paths. Chief Terrance W. Gainer commands a department of about three officers for every member of Congress, snipers and a heavily armed SWAT team.
Hospitals have added isolation rooms for patients with highly contagious diseases and trained health care workers in treating them. D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) led an effort last year to require railroads to route hazardous materials around Washington.
Local governments have made emergency preparations that outline where they would shelter evacuees and where they would create vaccination sites. The D.C. government has produced a 211-page emergency response plan.
But most of the focus is on the immediate aftermath of a disaster, said Dan Tangherlini, the District's transportation director. "What happens on day two and day three and day four?" he asked.
Washington also has had some recent tests -- contrived and real -- of its emergency management system. And in the eyes of many, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the region failed.
"The tests we've had do not inspire confidence," Norton said.
On June 9, 2004, city officials and others questioned the effectiveness of Washington's air defense system after a plane carrying the Kentucky governor on his way to former president Ronald Reagan's funeral breached Washington's no-fly zone, leading to the panicked evacuation of the U.S. Capitol. A government review found a communication failure between federal flight controllers and Washington air defense officials.
In May, the Capitol was frantically evacuated again when two men in a Cessna accidentally flew into Washington's restricted air space. The incident revealed another glitch in security planning.
D.C. police officials had no idea that fighter jets and a helicopter were deployed over Washington to intercept the errant plane, even though they had an official in the nation's Homeland Security command center and the ability to monitor what was taking place at their own headquarters.
Perhaps most telling was an incident in March, in which there was a false positive anthrax test at the Pentagon's remote mail facility and a similar alarm at Defense Department sites in Fairfax County. A report to Congress indicated that 900 Defense Department workers were treated with antibiotics without local health officials being consulted. The report also indicated poor communication between federal officials and some of the 20 jurisdictions that comprise the region. Vague chains of command also were faulted.
"What you had was the homeland security equivalent of the fog of war," Philip Schaenman, president of the private company hired by Virginia to review the incident, told Congress in April.Staying Put
After the fireworks on the Fourth of July, the District launched the first test of Washington's downtown emergency evacuation plan that was developed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
For 45 minutes, hundreds of thousands of pedestrians and motorists were directed to seven evacuation roads, or E-routes. The limited test found problems: Traffic signals did not switch to evacuation timing, some Transportation Department radios weren't charged, some officials weren't clear on their responsibilities and didn't communicate well with each other and people in the crowd were confused about where to go.
Still, terrorism experts applauded the District for being the first major U.S. city to conduct such an exercise and said they learned from the problems.
"There were some glitches," Tangherlini said. "But if we hadn't tested, we wouldn't have known. We made a lot of progress."
Tangherlini said he is concerned about the 37 percent of D.C. households without a car. The Transportation Department is working on a "walk-out" plan with staging areas for people to get assistance. But in the case of a terrorist attack, officials are concerned about publicizing the neighborhood meeting places for fear they could be secondary targets.
Tangherlini and other transportation officials worry, however, that too much time is spent planning for evacuation when the best response to some attacks -- such as a dirty bomb or a chemical release -- might be for residents to "shelter in place," or stay put.
That would keep the roads free for the emergency responders rushing to disaster scenes and citizens away from potentially harmful pathogens, officials said. The Washington area is so perpetually prone to traffic tie-ups that a well-publicized event on the Mall can trigger monumental jams. So can a Redskins game, or an overturned tractor-trailer.
Even a disgruntled tobacco farmer, armed with nothing more than a tractor he drove into a pond on the Mall and idle bomb threats, was able to snarl downtown traffic for four consecutive rush hours two years ago.
So an emergency evacuation of the entire city -- or even part of it -- could quickly tie the region into maddening and even dangerous knots, emergency officials said.
But some local leaders are worried that the notion of staying put goes so strongly against human nature that in an emergency, people would flee no matter what they were told -- especially after seeing how long it took to get help to the disadvantaged in New Orleans.
"I think people will look at Katrina and think of 9/11 and think what you're supposed to do in an event of an attack is to run," Norton said. "And I think it's a failure that that's what people think. The best thing to do most of the time is to stay in place."Failure to Communicate
Alert DC, the city's emergency notification system, is the high-tech answer to the Department of Homeland Security's concern that the government has no efficient way to communicate with residents if power outages leave them without access to television and radio.
The system is programmed to call all 1.5 million land-line telephone numbers registered in the District with a recorded message. But that won't help people without a phone. The system also can send 18,000 text messages a minute to cell phones, computers, pagers and other electronic devices.
But in its first test in August 2004, glitches plagued the system. The federal government raised the terror alert to orange for the financial sectors in Washington, New York and Newark. But no phone calls were made, and the system failed to send residents text messages for more than five hours after the decision was announced. Officials said no phone calls were made because the city was not actually under attack. The delay in getting out the text message occurred, in part, because the person responsible for writing it and getting it approved had other emergency-related duties, they said.
Jo'Ellen Countee, spokeswoman for the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, said the system has been fixed and text messages have been sent successfully since then.
D.C. officials said they now have more than 80 electronic signs where emergency messages could be posted. Law enforcement officials said they also will rely on the media to get out information.
"But how do you get the message to people if the phones lines are down and TV and radio stations are uninhabitable?" Tangherlini asked. "One of the big 9/11 lessons was that we didn't have a way to share information with people."
Dismayed by what they have seen so far of the federal government's response to the Gulf region, officials across the Washington area plan to spend the coming weeks reviewing their emergency response plans. At least with Katrina, officials knew ahead of time that the storm was coming.
"Osama will not give us two days' notice," Norton said.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.
For links to Web sites with more information on emergency preparedness, go tohttp://washingtonpost.com/metro.