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A Turnaround for Local Disaster Planning
Boost in Resources Could Help Agency Fulfill Ambitious Goals

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

In 12 years as a Marine, Chris Geldart worked such hot spots as Bosnia and the Middle East. But perhaps nothing compares with his mission this past year: coordinating disaster planning for the D.C. area among more than a dozen local governments, five states and 230 federal agencies.

With four employees.

Now, Congress and the Bush administration are giving a major boost to Geldart's office, which represents the National Capital Region at the Department of Homeland Security. Its budget has more than doubled this year, to $6 million. Its staff is set to expand to 20.

Lawmakers said they hope it's a turnaround for an office that has been criticized for being underfunded and ineffective. The money will help with such projects as establishing a way to communicate with the region's 340,000 federal workers in an emergency and improving the medical system's ability to handle a disaster, Geldart said.

"All the way up to 2006, this was really a two- and three-person office. They made good progress," Geldart said in an interview last week. But, with such a broad mandate, he said, "You just couldn't do it with three people."

The National Capital Region office was established at DHS in 2003, after heavy lobbying by D.C.-area business leaders and Metro. The office was supposed to be a liaison with the federal government for a region stunned by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It also was to ensure that federal agencies, local governments and corporations in this area were training and planning for disasters.

Business leaders and lawmakers have complained for years about the office's limited progress. In 2006, then-Director Thomas Lockwood and local officials were lambasted at a Senate hearing for taking more than two years to draw up a strategic disaster plan. Local governments have complained repeatedly about a lack of information from federal agencies when potential hazardous materials or errant planes are detected.

Geldart took over last April after serving as Maryland's assistant director of homeland security. Some say the plain-spoken retired Marine has injected new energy into the office.

"In the past year, we've been very encouraged," said James Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Geldart "understands the need, he has a sense of urgency, he has assembled a team and he has the credibility to put in for the additional dollars," Dinegar added.

Geldart, 38, works out of a sparsely decorated office on Virginia Avenue SW, with a framed box of his military medals on the wall. He entered the Marines as an "unfocused" teenager from Greenwich, Conn., and left 12 years later with "a lot of the integrity, the esprit de corps," he said.

When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, the father of two was finishing a history degree at the University of Maryland and contemplating law school. "I need to get back involved" with national security, Geldart recalled thinking. He became a consultant on the threats of weapons of mass destruction, then joined Maryland's new homeland security agency.

In his current job, Geldart has focused on catastrophe planning. Over the past year, many local governments have created plans for a large-scale evacuation, but they have struggled to unify them. Now that effort is moving to the next stage, with Geldart and regional representatives meeting with officials in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware to discuss working together during a mass exodus.

Another of Geldart's priorities is federal coordination. One major concern: Every U.S. government building in this area has an emergency plan, but few have coordinated with one another.

"What happens when all these folks hit the street?" Geldart asked. "How do we coordinate that, so that we don't have everyone pulling out of the parking lots, or running to Metro, at the same time?"

His office is helping the buildings' emergency managers to form "neighborhoods" and ensure their plans mesh.

Not everyone is convinced that the problems with the National Capital Region office are over. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said it lost clout when it was moved last year from the Homeland Security secretary's office to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Having more people helps, but at the end of the day, if something happens in the capital of the free world, you need to be able to respond quickly and at the top, and I'm not sure it's geared to do that," Davis said.

Still, the D.C. area has benefited from the post-Katrina effort to rebuild FEMA. The White House asked for $6 million for the National Capital Region office for 2008, triple the amount proposed for last year.

The regional office "really has floundered in the past," FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said at a meeting with Washington Post reporters Thursday. "We're putting some structure to it."

Although Congress trimmed the president's requests for the regional office in some past years, it provided the full amount this year. That reflected approval of Geldart's performance so far, congressional staffers said.

Geldart said the new funding will enable him to offer more technical help on catastrophe planning and grants to local and state governments. The office wants to improve coordination of federal, state and local resources for medical emergencies.

Geldart also plans to work closely with a new 15-member rapid-response team that FEMA is setting up in the area. The team, a post-Katrina innovation, is the first of four to be established around the country. The teams are intended to be the first federal responders at emergencies around the nation.

While more than six years have passed without a terrorist attack, Geldart said the region is still at risk.

"There are still people out there who want to do us harm. This is still the national capital, an iconic capital," he said. "We're still vulnerable, but we've put a lot in place."

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