Katrina Prompts a Regional Reassessment

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, left, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan are calling for revisions to emergency plans after Hurricane Katrina.
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, left, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan are calling for revisions to emergency plans after Hurricane Katrina. (By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005

Elected leaders from the region's three most populous jurisdictions called yesterday for a reworking of local emergency plans because they lack confidence in the federal government's ability to respond to a catastrophe.

In a rare joint appearance, leaders from Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties told the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina is an alarming indicator that current plans might rely too heavily on such support.

"What has been made clear to all of us is the federal government's response has been totally absent. They really haven't responded adequately," said Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). "We need to rethink everything we do."

The officials were short on specific criticism of the plans, which were developed in 2002, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But at the request of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), the council's board of directors -- made up of officials from suburban Maryland, Virginia and the District -- asked city and county managers to begin a review and report back in a month.

"In metropolitan Washington, we are always in the eye of the hurricane," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We can never have too much planning . . . and Katrina gives us the opportunity to address what went right and what wrong."

The regional emergency plan, developed after a series of war game exercises, identifies what local, state and federal resources would be available to emergency managers in a disaster.

It also creates a round-the-clock communications system, designed to link local, state and federal leaders within 30 minutes of the onset of a disaster.

Besides reviewing that system, the council will assist local and state emergency officials in reevaluating disaster plans, which remain the dominant vehicle for responding to a crisis.

Although he applauds the leaders' efforts, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the focus should be on fixing the Federal Emergency Management Agency so it is better prepared to respond to a disaster.

"Clearly, if there is an incident in the Washington area, the federal government is going to be a major part of any response," Van Hollen said. "We need to make sure, no matter what happens in the future, FEMA responds."

Joanna Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the federal response to emergencies will improve when Secretary Michael Chertoff completes his restructuring of the agency, which includes plans to create a preparedness office so FEMA can focus on response and recovery.

"FEMA will not have this preparedness burden on it anymore," Gonzalez said.


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