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Area Still Unprepared for Terror Attacks, Senate Panel Is Told

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.''

Thomas Lockwood, the DHS director for the capital region, said leaders are working hard to come up with a consensus plan. But he said the effort is hampered by fragmented authority among the region's 12 jurisdictions, two states and the District of Columbia, all three branches of the federal government, more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations and numerous regional business and civic groups. Nearly three dozen police departments operate in the District alone.

Lockwood said regional officials are making slow but steady progress on crafting the plan.

"The consensus process around the details takes much longer to do,'' he said, but "if you do it right, it's going to last.''

Lockwood and Reiskin, along with Robert P. Crouch, Virginia's preparedness director, and Dennis R. Schrader, Maryland's homeland security director, said much has been accomplished in recent months.

They said enhanced cooperation with military and aviation officials has dramatically improved responses to airspace incursions. Also, additional gear has been purchased so that firefighters in the region could continue functioning if their original gear became contaminated. In addition, the region has developed an area-wide electronic surveillance system for early detection of epidemics and a plan for dealing with large numbers of casualties.

Officials are working on a secure, compatible communication network that would link local officials in an emergency. There is also a cache of 1,250 compatible radios that could be distributed to Prince George's or other jurisdictions during an incident.

But a detailed strategic plan is still vital, experts said. The problems encountered during the Katrina disaster highlighted the need for detailed evacuation plans, especially when many jurisdictions and agencies are involved.

In testimony yesterday, William O. Jenkins Jr., director of homeland security issues for the Government Accountability Office, was asked whether local officials can really know whether they are adequately prepared without such a plan.

"In a word, no,'' he said.

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