Elected leaders from the region's three most populous jurisdictions called yesterday for a reworking of local emergency plans because they lack confidence in the federal government's ability to respond to a catastrophe.
In a rare joint appearance, leaders from Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties told the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina is an alarming indicator that current plans might rely too heavily on such support.
"What has been made clear to all of us is the federal government's response has been totally absent. They really haven't responded adequately," said Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). "We need to rethink everything we do."
The officials were short on specific criticism of the plans, which were developed in 2002, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But at the request of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), the council's board of directors -- made up of officials from suburban Maryland, Virginia and the District -- asked city and county managers to begin a review and report back in a month.
"In metropolitan Washington, we are always in the eye of the hurricane," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We can never have too much planning . . . and Katrina gives us the opportunity to address what went right and what wrong."
The regional emergency plan, developed after a series of war game exercises, identifies what local, state and federal resources would be available to emergency managers in a disaster.
It also creates a round-the-clock communications system, designed to link local, state and federal leaders within 30 minutes of the onset of a disaster.
Besides reviewing that system, the council will assist local and state emergency officials in reevaluating disaster plans, which remain the dominant vehicle for responding to a crisis.
Although he applauds the leaders' efforts, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the focus should be on fixing the Federal Emergency Management Agency so it is better prepared to respond to a disaster.
"Clearly, if there is an incident in the Washington area, the federal government is going to be a major part of any response," Van Hollen said. "We need to make sure, no matter what happens in the future, FEMA responds."
Joanna Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the federal response to emergencies will improve when Secretary Michael Chertoff completes his restructuring of the agency, which includes plans to create a preparedness office so FEMA can focus on response and recovery.
"FEMA will not have this preparedness burden on it anymore," Gonzalez said.
But regional leaders say the hurricane has taught them they can't rely on FEMA.
"We now need to recognize the reality is, help may not be on the way," said Duncan, who called for the removal of FEMA from Homeland Security and for the agency's return to Cabinet-level status.
Notably, officials said, clearer plans are needed for evacuating residents, particularly those who do not have cars or who are sick or elderly.
The leaders also want to discuss ways of better alerting residents to an emergency; D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R) suggested the creation of a siren alert system.
"We need to go back to the basics," Schwartz said.
Four years after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, local leaders are most concerned about a potential breakdown in communications between local authorities and federal officials in an emergency.
Greenbelt Mayor Judith F. Davis recounted the experience of her police department, which deployed some of its tactical force to New Orleans.
The officers were patrolling the streets in an armored car when a helicopter began to hover overhead. The pilot dropped a bottle with a note inside, warning them of a major gas leak in their path.
Local leaders plan to redouble efforts to educate the public on how they should react in an emergency.
"The general public vastly needs some very clear instructions on what to do, rather than panic in place or running into each other in the streets," said Rockville City Council member Robert E. Dorsey, a member of the Council of Governments board.