U.S. Tests Response To Set of Calamities
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Thousands of key federal employees are being whisked from the Washington area by helicopter and car for a three-day test of their ability to run the government from remote locations during a disaster.
The exodus, which began yesterday and will continue today, involves the White House and other parts of the executive branch. Congress and the judiciary are not part of the exercise, which is being overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
Since the late 1990s, every federal agency has been required to have a plan to quickly resume operations after a catastrophe. But the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks raised doubts about many agencies' preparations.
This week's "continuity of government" drill is one of the largest by the federal government since 9/11, officials said. It is part of a national eight-day exercise in which officials are responding to a cascade of nightmarish events. The drill started Thursday, with terrorists sabotaging a tanker carrying poisonous gas in Washington state.
Next, suspected nerve gas was accidentally released from a government stockpile in Oregon. The disaster script also calls for a devastating Category 4 hurricane to roar up the East Coast toward the District, where officials will be getting word of a terrorist threat to the capital.
Officials leaving the Washington area will work from temporary offices in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland for periods ranging from a few hours to two days. Others will work from home.
Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman, said thousands of employees will take part in the exercise. Plans call for a mandatory evacuation of the Washington region before "Hurricane Zoe" strikes at 1 a.m. Thursday.
Knocke would not say which senior officials are participating. President Bush will not be working from a remote location, but other White House officials will, said Scott Stanzel, deputy White House press secretary.
"I'm not going to be able to detail who those officials are," he said.
The roles of Cabinet secretaries in remote locations will be played by their underlings in some cases.
The out-of-town sites used in the exercise will include Mount Weather, a Cold War-era bunker on the border of Loudoun and Clarke counties that has been used in recent years as an operations center by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials said.
Critics have derided FEMA in recent years for including functions such as patent processing as an "essential" service to be restored after a catastrophe.
But Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, applauded officials for organizing the drill.
"At least they're doing exercises," he said. "It's not enough to design plans; you have to practice."
FEMA is running the hurricane part of the exercise. Washington, Maryland and Virginia officials "are involved but not playing full-scale," said Chris Geldart, who heads Homeland Security's office for the National Capital Region.
Most residents won't notice anything unusual during the hurricane exercise, because much of it is "tabletop" -- involving discussions of plans rather than deployments of first responders. But hotels a few hours outside Washington may be unusually full of visitors who are clearly not tourists.