- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

BALTIMORE | Maryland has no specific plans to handle a catastrophic event along the lines of Hurricane Katrina, according to an evaluation of the state’s disaster-preparedness program requested by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The 117-page report completed by James Lee Witt Associates, a crisis-management and preparedness-services firm based in Washington, also faulted state and local government plans for not having a specific way to identify and locate the elderly and people with disabilities during emergencies.

The report authors, however, said many of the findings were typical for state governments that are trying to upgrade their emergency-operation systems in the aftermath of major U.S. disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11.

James Lee Witt, chief executive officer of the firm that bears his name and former Federal Emergency Management Agency director, was quick to praise Mr. O’Malley for taking “the bold steps to conduct this extensive review.”

Maryland has many separate plans to deal with events such as hurricanes, floods and other disasters, said Ken Mallette, a vice president with the firm, but no set plan for dealing with a disaster that would totally overwhelm the state’s response system and require aid from neighboring states or the federal government.

“They do well handling storms, smaller wind events, inauguration and things along those lines, but what happens when you stress resources beyond their capabilities?” Mr. Mallette said in a phone interview. “States need to be sustainable without federal assistance for up to 72 hours.”

Edward Hopkins, chief of staff for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said the state already has addressed many of the report’s concerns.

“We can’t plan the elements of every disaster, but we can build in things that will help us handle whatever may come,” Mr. Hopkins said.

Study authors urged Mr. O’Malley to purchase a costly radio system that would allow first responders across the state to be able to communicate with each other during emergency situations. When Washington-area police, fire and medical personnel responded to the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks, many rescue workers were unable to communicate with first responders from different areas because their radio systems were not compatible.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, said state officials are already reviewing bids for a statewide radio system. Similar operations have cost other states hundreds of millions of dollars. Maryland leaders hope to have the program fully operational within the next five to seven years, which Mr. Witt characterized as a “huge deal.”

“This is something that can really save lives,” he said.

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