Area Still Unprepared for Terror Attacks, Senate Panel Is Told

"If you do it right, it's going to last," Thomas Lockwood, the DHS director for the capital region, says of reaching consensus on a preparedness plan. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

Nearly five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Washington region still lacks a strategic plan to guide preparations for any future attacks or to effectively spend hundreds of millions of homeland security dollars, federal and local officials told a U.S. Senate panel yesterday.

The lack of a comprehensive regionwide communication system was repeatedly cited by senators as a case of poor planning and coordination. For example, Prince George's County does not have radios that are fully compatible with neighboring jurisdictions.

An oversight panel for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs took emergency response officials from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government to task for bureaucratic foot-dragging and a lack of agreement on a long-term plan for protecting millions of residents in the region.

"What do we have today? What's in place today?'' asked Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

Local homeland security officials did not give a definitive answer. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, they said, strategies have been developed that make the region better prepared to deal with attacks, but they realize that more needs to be done.

"That's not too good after all these years, I have to tell you,'' Warner said.

Senators questioned why the Capital Region Homeland Security Strategic Plan has not been completed. The plan was promised last September but will not be available until August at the earliest, officials said. The plan would establish goals and priorities for enhancing disaster response and for efficiently spending federal preparedness dollars.

"Six months since the proposed release date, the region has yet to release a final version of the strategic plan. This is unacceptable,'' said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee on oversight, which held the hearing.

Yesterday was not the first time that lawmakers expressed frustration over the pace and progress of emergency planning in the region. Although the Washington area is designated as high-risk, last year it had not spent $120 million of the federal anti-terrorism grants it received from 2002 to 2004. Officials said yesterday they have boosted the spending rate.

Warner and other senators said the poor federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the confusion and lack of communication when a small plane violated the District's airspace in May underscored the need for effective regional coordination.

Edward D. Reiskin, the District's deputy mayor for public safety and justice, assured the panel that local jurisdictions are prepared to respond to individual emergencies.

"If a big, bad thing happens, we have a response plan,'' he said after the hearing. "That's not at all what is the issue here. It's about strategic planning and about what is the vision.''

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