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."
The review has already led to some changes.
The number of staff members at the National Capital Region office has roughly doubled in recent months to about 15 people, including several borrowed from other areas of Homeland Security, Foresman said in a telephone interview. The budget, about $883,000, is expected to double or even triple in 2007, thanks in part to a measure sponsored by Virginia's two senators, Republicans John W. Warner and George Allen, seeking $2.74 million for the office.
With the added resources, the office has increased its planning for how the federal government would handle the evacuation of employees in a crisis, said Foresman, a former homeland security official for the Virginia government.
In addition, Chertoff said he convened a meeting with officials from as far away as West Virginia and Delaware to focus on drawing up an evacuation plan for the Washington area.
Local government officials said they welcome efforts to improve Homeland Security coordination with federal agencies. But they cautioned that they are opposed to federal officials taking charge of an emergency in the region.
"We absolutely do not want a federal government entity assuming control of disaster response," said Edward D. Reiskin, the District's deputy mayor for public safety.
Reiskin and other officials noted that the Arlington County Fire Department led the much-praised response to the Pentagon attack in 2001, with the U.S. military, police, neighboring firefighters and others providing support.
Officials said cooperation among local governments and first responders has gotten even better since then, aided by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants.
"We're acting more like one big response agency," said Arlington County Fire Chief James Schwartz, who oversaw the relief and rescue effort at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
He offered an example: The region's firefighters recently agreed on common procedures in case of a radiological emergency such as a "dirty bomb." All the responders would take the same protective steps and use the same equipment, depending upon the radiation levels, he said.
On Wednesday, state and local representatives are scheduled to vote on a regional strategic plan that would commit them to further measures to improve response. Federal legislators have been sharply critical of the lengthy, two-year process to craft the plan.
Lockwood, however, said it was important to build consensus among officials and first responders in a region with a dozen jurisdictions, two state governments as well as the District's, three branches of the federal government, more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations and many business and civic groups.
"People say it's taken so long, when the real question is, it's been remarkable what's been accomplished," Lockwood said in a telephone interview.
Even as the plan was being developed, it suffered a setback when Homeland Security officials announced in June that they were sharply reducing a major anti-terror grant for the region. As a result, some regional projects, such as a planned high-tech communications system, will take longer than anticipated.
Work on the strategic plan began in 2004, after the Government Accountability Office expressed concern that there was no regionwide framework for spending the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds provided to make the area safer after Sept. 11, 2001.
Asked last week how much the area has received in federal funds to improve homeland security in the past five years, Lockwood said his office can't say for certain.
Grants from the Department of Homeland Security total about $239 million for the Washington area, according to a spokeswoman. Hundreds of millions more dollars have been provided by the departments of Defense, Justice and Health and Human Services. But some of those grants went straight to local jurisdictions or private sector institutions such as hospitals.
William O. Jenkins, director of homeland security issues at GAO, who had called for the strategic plan in 2004, said that progress was being made, albeit slowly.
"There has been more communication among the different jurisdictions and people and subgroups," he said. "They're getting more used to talking to each other."