Suppose there were a hurricane, flood or other natural catastrophe in Howard County. Would county officials be able to produce a "damage assessment?"
Such an assessment, a quick survey of a disaster's impact, is a prerequisite for getting state and federal disaster assistance funds and for marshaling the resources of government agencies and charities to respond.
Recently, a damage-assessment exercise was conducted in the county. Howard flunked, according to Jack Mitchell, who supervised the test.
"There would be chaos here," Mitchell after the the test last month that he conducted under contract with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
Mitchell, a Columbia resident who has performed such tests for the agency in Montgomery, Calvert and other counties as well, said that, by comparison, "there were some serious problems in Howard."
Mitchell criticized the county's performance in a June 22 letter to Richard W. Shaw, director of emergency management and civil defense for the county.
But county officials defend their performance, saying that the sessions involving six supervisors and 26 other staff members were "more for training purposes than an actual exercise or test."
"I was pleased with the way it went, overall," said Murray Rommal, deputy director of emergency management and civil defense for the county. "I'm sure there will be things to fall through the cracks."
In the exercise, supervisors and other county employees from various agencies were presented with the details of a hypothetical disaster that had struck Howard. Using slides of damaged buildings and other materials, the county workers were supposed to come up with a detailed survey and estimate of the losses, then document their findings in a variety of formats required by the state.
"The team was unable to establish the dollar value of the simulated damage," according to Mitchell. A key problem, he wrote, was that the people with the main responsibility for making that assessment -- local officials of the State Department of Assessments and Taxation -- never showed up.
According to Rommal, the two people who were suppposed to come from the tax office "got involved that day with irate citizens and flat forgot about it."
Mitchell also said the number of people available from the county Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits "is not adequate for even a medium-sized disaster damage-assessment survey."
The importance of a quick, accurate damage-assessment survey was driven home to Montgomery County officials last year, Mitchell said, when a wind storm struck the county and delays in completing the assessment slowed down the process of obtaining state financial aid.
Rommal said the county will arrange for supervisors to complete training sessions in assessment of disaster damage.
Mitchell also argued in his letter that the exercise revealed Howard County's lack of a contingency plan, such as those set up in other jurisdictions, to coordinate the response of government agencies. Mitchell said many jurisdictions have established ways of getting the information on the dimensions of disasters to government agencies, such as the county school system and road crews, and to nonprofit groups, such as the Community Action Council, Meals-on-Wheels or the Red Cross.
"The county needs to be able to get the information on damages quickly to Meals-on-Wheels: They may have seniors who can go one or two days without that service," Mitchell said.
Rommal said the county would be able to coordinate services in an emergency but added that nothing could totally prepare the county for a disaster.
"Sure, it would be chaotic," he said, "to some degree, that's inevitable."