Guide to Evacuate Region Reveals Limitations

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

More than a year after officials in the Washington area began drawing up plans for a large-scale evacuation, they have produced a guide that falls short of their original goals because of differences over turf and individual jurisdictions' plans for confronting a catastrophe.

Backed by a $1.4 million federal grant, officials intended to create a unified evacuation plan in case of a terrorist strike or other disaster. But they scaled it back to a guide for governments in the Washington area, with a database of highways, shelters, buses and other resources.

Some analysts said the document reflects a worrisome lack of coordination in one of the world's prime terror targets. But others said the original goal was too ambitious, given the absence of detailed local plans and the region's division of authority.

"What we decided was: You can't have one operational plan across state, commonwealth and District for evacuation," said Chris Geldart, the representative for the D.C. area at the Department of Homeland Security. "But what you can do is understand what is everybody's plan and how they fit together."

He called the guide a significant advance and said it would provide the building blocks for a more integrated regional plan.

The project made clear the patchwork nature of planning for a catastrophe in the area, according to a final draft obtained by The Washington Post. Some major thoroughfares out of the District narrow into smaller roads in Maryland, where they are not considered evacuation routes. The database includes more than 80 large evacuation shelters in the District and Maryland but none in Virginia, where officials are still compiling that information. And, unlike most jurisdictions, Prince George's County is not contemplating a large-scale evacuation, saying residents would be safer if they stayed off jammed roads.

Such differences reflect the divided authority in a region encompassing 17 cities and counties spread over two states and a federal district. New York's mayor can order his city's 8 million residents to leave, but "there is no single individual that may issue an evacuation order" for the 5 million people in the Washington region, the guide says.

Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said it was "just stunning" to hear of the differences in local plans.

"The solution to this has to be an understanding among jurisdictions, not just agreeing about evacuation routes, but about who's in charge," he said.

But officials said a direct chain of command is not possible, because individual governments have authority over their own first responders and other resources.

George W. Foresman, a former Homeland Security undersecretary for preparedness, said the original goal was too ambitious.

"The premise of having a single plan is great, as long as you've figured out individually, in each of the jurisdictions, what you need to be doing. But I don't think we had gotten to that point yet," he said.

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