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Is the D.C. Area Ready for Another Disaster? | District Notebook

From hurricanes to earthquakes to Snowmageddon, Washington, D.C., has experience dealing with natural disasters.

And as the national capital region faces tighter funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, policymakers are looking for ways to ensure the area is safe and prepared.

Last week, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Emergency Management, Intergovernmental Relations, and the District of Columbia examined how prepared the region is for the next disaster.

The panel, chaired by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, heard from regional emergency managers and from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., focusing on the response capabilities and emergency preparedness of federal and local authorities.

“Here we’ve had what some have called Snowmageddon, the worst snow anyone can recall, not to mention the earthquake. Who ever heard of an earthquake in this region?” Norton asked, referring to the February 2010 storm and August 2011 quake that rocked the region.

Begich said modernization of the region’s disaster response was necessary to addressing such events.

“Emergency preparation is key,” he said. “Emergency response in the national capital region is essential to standing by when disaster strikes. … We must continue to look for ways to reduce costs, and I believe it is this time amid fiscal uncertainty that we must find more efficient ways to strengthen our agency partnerships.”

Similar hearings were held following disasters in 2007 and in 2011, but Begich, the only senator in attendance, said it is important to continue to update emergency response planning.

Formally defined in 1952 and encompassing six counties in Maryland and Virginia as well as the District of Columbia, FEMA’s Office of National Capital Region Coordination oversees and coordinates security and emergency management in the area.

Christopher T. Geldart heads this office. A Marine and former manager at Booz Allen Hamilton, he spoke of the importance of coordinating intelligence and response efforts with regional officials.

Kenneth Mallette, the director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, praised Geldart’s office and FEMA’s regional role, especially amid budget uncertainties.

“The NCR should continue to have access to FEMA resources that are dedicated to meeting the region’s preparedness needs,” Mallette said. “Although I am pleased that ONCRC will continue to have a presence in the region, I believe that ONCRC would be better able to serve the NCR’s jurisdictions by being able to report to and draw resources from the highest levels within FEMA headquarters.”

Begich also heard testimony from Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan and from Arlington County Fire Chief James Schwartz.

Following nearly 40 minutes of testimony, the senator spent about 30 minutes asking questions focused on situational preparedness and regional emergency plans nationwide, comparing and contrasting those with NCR emergency planning while emphasizing his six years as mayor of Anchorage, Alaska.