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A Turnaround for Local Disaster Planning

Boost in Resources Could Help Agency Fulfill Ambitious Goals

Chris Geldart is finally getting enough funding to expand his staff of four and tackle the task of coordinating disaster planning for hundreds of agencies.
Chris Geldart is finally getting enough funding to expand his staff of four and tackle the task of coordinating disaster planning for hundreds of agencies. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008; Page B01

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.

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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.

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