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Risk of Nuclear Attack on Rise

Dallas predicted that the local medical system would be overwhelmed, but said that authorities could save lives with better preparation. For example, Dallas suggested training medical professionals such as pharmacists and veterinarians to provide burn care and other assistance. Community volunteers living near Howard University Hospital, which would be outside the blast zone, could be organized in advance to clean wounds and help in other ways, he said.

"Burn care is a nightmare. And we're completely unprepared," Dallas said, noting that the entire country only has specialized burn facilities for 1,500 patients. "Ninety-five percent of burn victims will not receive care. And most of them will die."

Asked for comment, emergency-response officials in the region said they had made great strides in preparing for a catastrophic event.

Chris Geldart, who oversees the National Capital Region office at the Department of Homeland Security, said local hazmat teams can quickly run data to predict the path of a radiological or chemical cloud. Homeland Security recently held an exercise with the governors of Maryland and Virginia, as well as D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), on how to inform the public about a dangerous plume.

As for casualties from a nuclear device, "the amount of burn victims that you're going to have would stress any system," Geldart said. The National Disaster Medical System would be activated to whisk patients to other states for treatment, he said. "There's been a lot of planning that has happened within this region, especially at the federal level, for the 10-kiloton."

Darrell Darnell, head of the city's homeland security office, said in a statement, "We are confident that the District is prepared to respond to a catastrophic incident."

He said that the city's emergency communication tools include a reverse-911 calling system, text alerts, city Web sites and the Emergency Alert System, which sends messages over radio and television.

Geldart disagreed with an idea raised by Carter at the hearing: having the federal government assume control after a nuclear explosion. "The federal government is not going to wrest control from a state, as long as state and local governments are capable of responding," Geldart said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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