By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010; B01
Metro's emergency management chief said Thursday that the District's response to recent snowstorms might have run smoother if the storms had been treated as a disaster or major security threat.
Peter LaPorte, who headed emergency management for the city under former mayor Anthony Williams (D), told a D.C. Council committee that he was the "snow czar" during that administration, which he said made it easy for government agencies to coordinate response efforts.
"If I was [asked] how to run that snowstorm, I would have run it out of the emergency management" agency, said LaPorte, who appeared before the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary to speak in support of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's nominee to head the city's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
LaPorte said he thinks the city's emergency management coordinators performed well during the two major snowstorms this month, but he became the latest voice to question how Fenty (D) managed the storms.
Although Fenty activated the city's emergency operations center in Southeast, he seemed to work most closely with Gabe Klein, director of the city's Department of Transportation, and Bill Howland, head of the Department of Public Works, in overseeing much of the response.
Fenty did not did not directly answer questions about how he managed the storm, but his spokeswoman issued a statement Thursday praising snowplow crews. The mayor thinks they "not only did heroic work under extreme conditions," said the statement from Mafara Hobson, "but are the best example of a city government that is committed to providing the best services humanly possible for its citizens."
On Thursday, the heads of the police and paramedic unions told The Washington Post that they thought the administration did not realize how big a threat the snowstorms could have been to public safety.
"We had absolutely no plan," said Kenneth Lyons, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721, which represents many D.C. paramedics. "We treated it as any other day, and there was no effort to look at this as something that needed emergency planning. . . . We needed help."
Fenty never ordered a state of emergency during the storms, although the governors of neighboring Maryland and Virginia did.
The city also used only 16 National Guard Humvees, although paramedics and police officers said they could have used dozens more.
"The bottom line is: If something big would have happened, we would have been in serious trouble," said Kristopher Baumann, head of the D.C. police union. "We had very limited mobility, and the command structure was not set up as if it was an emergency."
The city has also been criticized for not following the federal government's decisions about closing government offices. Fenty kept city offices open Feb. 8 and 9, although federal agencies were closed. The federal government reopened last Friday, but streets narrowed by snowbanks resulted in massive traffic tie-ups.
"Clearly, there needed to be better planning," council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said in an interview Thursday. Brown is a potential challenger to Fenty in this year's mayor's race.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said Fenty adopted a hands-on approach, which enabled him to personally oversee snow-removal efforts. "The mayor was 100 percent engaged," Graham said Thursday. "He worked tirelessly. What you had is the mayor himself in charge of the operation."
Although Klein and Howland worked to clear the streets, some council members questioned why the city's emergency management agency was not more visible after the storms, which dumped three feet of snow over five days in the District.
On Thursday, council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) sought answers from Millicent D. Williams, acting director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, at her confirmation hearing.
"How much of this was the District government saying, 'We don't need help. We can do it ourselves'?" asked Mendelson, who said he thinks the city should have treated the storms as it would a hurricane.
Williams, who is also facing questions about whether she is qualified to head the District's security and disaster response operations, told Mendelson's committee that she was working behind the scenes last week to coordinate emergency response efforts.
"The fact of the matter is, our agency is doing its best work when people don't know we are there," Williams said in an interview after the hearing. "We are a coordination body. We help to connect resources to where the problems are, and so it's not necessary for me to be front and center."
Williams said it made sense for transportation and public works officials to take the lead in the storm response plan because the first priority is to make roads passable.
Despite questioning the Fenty administration's approach, LaPorte, who started his job with Metro in 2008, spoke in support of Williams's nomination, praising her temperament and executive skills.
Mendelson said he has some concern about whether she has enough experience to be in charge of protecting the nation's capital.
Williams, who has a business degree, is a former executive director of Serve DC, which oversees volunteer efforts in the city. Most recently, she was president of the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. before Fenty tapped her to head the homeland security agency in October.
"All I can do is commit to demonstrating my commitment to the residents of the District, learning as much as I need to learn, and engage the people I need to engage to make sure we are meeting the mission of the agency," Williams told The Post. "I have a great team."
Robert A. Malson, president of the D.C. Hospital Association, testified at the hearing that Williams was helpful in directing resources to the city's hospitals during the storms.
"The ambulances got in, and there were no disruptions," Malson said. "I was able to communicate with the people on the mayor's snow team."