Emergency Readiness Questioned

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says he has ordered a comprehensive plan for evacuating the region in case of another attack.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says he has ordered a comprehensive plan for evacuating the region in case of another attack. (By Dennis Brack -- Bloomberg News)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

The Department of Homeland Security is taking a critical look at how well the Washington area is prepared for a terrorist strike or other disaster, amid complaints by business leaders and the local congressional delegation about a lack of sufficient emergency planning since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As a result of the scrutiny, the tiny Homeland Security office for the National Capital Region has received a boost in funding and personnel in recent months, officials said. Homeland Security has expanded an air-defense center in Herndon to serve as a possible regional operations hub in case of a crisis. And Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he has ordered a comprehensive plan for evacuating the region.

"It is something I do think needs some significant attention," Chertoff told reporters and editors at The Washington Post last week.

As the region marks the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, officials said they have made enormous strides. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on disaster equipment and training. State and local officials will issue a regionwide strategic plan this week, listing dozens of steps they have agreed to take in the next three years to better prepare for a crisis.

Still, officials said they worry about a repeat of some of the problems that unfolded in the Washington region after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- such as the chaotic exit of thousands of employees from federal buildings. Coordinating disaster response is particularly complex because the area includes parts of two states and the District, a host of local governments and scores of federal agencies.

"We can't have 218 different reactions and 218 different speakers for those agencies" in a crisis, said George Vradenburg, a senior official at the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which has been lobbying Homeland Security to improve disaster coordination between local and federal officials.

Congress tried to address that issue by creating the Office of National Capital Region Coordination within the massive bureaucracy of Homeland Security in 2003. Its director was supposed to be the region's main contact with the federal government on civil defense matters; he also was supposed to help secure federal aid for the region.

But the office can only urge -- not require -- people from different entities to cooperate. And it has been underfunded and understaffed, according to members of the local congressional delegation. Thomas J. Lockwood became the director of the office in May 2004, after the position had been empty for six months.

The office has helped the region form a common disaster strategy, said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), whose House Committee on Government Reform has held four hearings on the area's preparedness since 2001. "These are steps," Davis said Friday in a statement. "But they're baby steps."

Frustrated by the office's limitations, as well as a lack of coordination during several terrorism scares in the Washington area since 2001, leaders of the influential Board of Trade have stepped in. They have met with Chertoff as well as President Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, and other officials in recent months to urge a greater federal role in organizing the response to a possible catastrophe.

The National Capital Region office "has been okay but not as effective as we had hoped," Vradenburg said. "It was never assigned an operational ability, which is a weakness we're seeing right now."

Asked about the complaints, Chertoff told The Post on Thursday that he had asked one of his deputies, George W. Foresman, "to take kind of a hard look at how the . . . National Capital Region preparedness stuff is going."

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