Memo to Montgomery County's Doug Duncan, Prince George's Jack Johnson and the other local politicians anxious to avoid disaster in the face of disaster, New Orleans style:
At the seat of national government, where any response to a catastrophe is going to inevitably involve the Pentagon, the Secret Service, the Capitol Police, the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, it's probably not a great idea to insult the federal government or write it off in preparing for Washington's version of The Big One, as you did this week. In case you haven't noticed, they've got the people, the power, the guns, the helicopters, the trucks, the radios, the bunkers and the technical expertise. The goal ought to be to harness federal resources, not figure out how to do without them.
We know now the human and economic consequences of getting this wrong. And right now, we're still spinning our wheels. Yes, grants have been won, consultants' reports commissioned and countless radios purchased. There have been a few live tests and scenario planning sessions, with mixed results. Individual jurisdictions and agencies have drafted some response plans. It's even possible to get all the relevant political leaders and agency heads on a conference call with 10 minutes notice.
But what you still don't have, four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, is anything approaching credible regional plans to respond to an attack or a natural disaster, or even an agreement of who will be in charge if one occurs. And under a proposed reorganization at the Department of Homeland Security, emergency planning in the Washington region is likely to get less priority and staffing.
As you know, the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security authorized a well-staffed office, reporting directly to the secretary, that was supposed to coordinate regional prevention, preparedness and response to terrorist attacks. Because it wasn't a priority with former secretary Tom Ridge, five months went by before a director was appointed. And even now, a grand total of three people work there.
Michael Chertoff, the new secretary, has other ideas. He wants to transfer the office to a new undersecretary for preparedness, where it presumably would fight for resources with every other region of the country. In addition, Chertoff proposes to separate the function of preparing for emergencies from the function of managing them, which will remain under another undersecretary who sits atop FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As a going-in proposition, it's hard to understand why anyone would want the people who manage through a crisis to be different from those who prepare and rehearse for it. As Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) put it, that's a bit like having one squad practice and another one play the game.
Equally worrisome is the decision to treat the national capital just like any other region. The task is made hard enough by our region's political geography, with its three separate "states" that jealously guard their priorities and prerogatives. But it is made even tougher by the need to coordinate the activities of myriad government departments and agencies that are unlikely to take direction from a GS-16 with a staff of two located four levels down in the Department of Homeland Security.
By definition, any serious catastrophe that befalls the Washington area will be a national event requiring federal response. Putting Chief Moose in charge won't cut it this time. Rather than dissing the feds, you need to push them to designate someone with the rank, resources and authority to plan and execute an effective regional response.
Some Republicans and their think-tank allies have the perfect formula for reviving the economy of the devastated Gulf region: low wages, low taxes, relaxed environmental laws, no-bid contracts, a tough criminal code, lavish spending on public works, limited spending on welfare and public education, no minority set-asides and preference for faith-based organizations.
Come to think of it, that sounds suspiciously like Louisiana and Mississippi before Katrina, when they boasted some of the highest poverty rates and lowest household incomes in the nation.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.