- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2005

Emergency management officials across the region say the evacuation of New Orleans on the eve of Hurricane Katrina exposed weaknesses in preparedness plans largely developed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Chief among the weaknesses is ensuring that thousands of local residents who are poor or who do not own automobiles are able to evacuate in a timely manner.

According to the latest census data, more than 172,000 households in the District and the surrounding jurisdictions lack cars and more than 54,000 families live below the poverty level.

By far the largest group of vulnerable residents lives in the District, where 91,699 households do not own automobiles and 19,365 families live below the poverty level.

“We will be looking real closely at lessons learned,” said Edward D. Reiskin, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “We are open to changing, advancing and augmenting our plan as we drill down deeper into what happened there.”

The District has an 18-page citywide response plan and 39 neighborhood plans that identify hazards in community clusters. The plans offer resources and instructions for coping with emergencies from excessive heat to a terrorist attack, and direct people where to take shelter during emergencies.

The plans were developed after September 11, when motorists and pedestrians fleeing the city jammed roadways and navigated through closed-off streets and around abandoned vehicles.

The citywide District Response Plan instructs motorists which routes to take out of the city depending on their location. It calls for using inbound lanes for outbound traffic, retiming traffic lights and deploying police officers and National Guardsmen to critical intersections.

But the plans do not indicate how people without vehicles are supposed to evacuate.

In Prince George’s County, recent census data show, more than 10,000 families are below the poverty line and more than 30,000 households do not have automobiles.

The county’s director of homeland security said evacuating them could pose a “challenge.”

“Given the scenario that took place [in New Orleans], of course we are thinking of that,” Vernon Herron said. “Obviously, we would need to do a little bit better educating the public.”

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat widely expected to run for governor next year, has criticized the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, saying “vulnerable residents” were left to “fend for themselves.”

“Poor, sick and elderly people were left behind on the Gulf Coast,” Mr. Duncan said yesterday. “No one gets left behind in our region or in our state.”

In Montgomery County, 8,428 families live below the poverty line and 24,413 households do not own automobiles.

The county’s eight-page Home Guide for Emergency Preparedness does not address what residents should expect if they have no transportation and are told to evacuate.

Gordon Aoyagi, the county’s director of homeland security, did not return a phone message.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) has announced plans to reassess regional emergency plans at its Wednesday meeting.

The council approved a plan on September 11, 2002, detailing protocols for coordination and communication among city, county and federal agencies in an emergency, but responsibility for evacuations rests with each jurisdiction.

Mr. Reiskin said the District will focus on how it can work with the federal government.

“What Katrina has shown is the federal government didn’t respond the way the local government expected them to,” he said. “I think what we need to do, both at the District and across the region, is make sure the plan reflects what we can realistically expect from the federal government.”

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