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Eleanor Holmes Norton: Quake Shows D.C. Unprepared for Terrorist Attack

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Washington, D.C., was not prepared for the surprise earthquake that hit the region in August and it's not ready for a terrorist attack either, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said today.

Norton challenged the Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to learn from the mistakes she said they made in the fallout of the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the District on Aug. 23.

OPM Deputy Director for Facilities, Security and Contracting Dean Hunter, and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, testified today at a Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management hearing. Norton is the ranking member of the subcommittee.

She said residents did not know where to seek safe shelter and whether they should make their way home, as OPM did not announce a unified dismissal alert until around 4 p.m. that day.

The public transportation system was paralyzed as masses of citizens headed to the Metro, said Norton, and cellphone and Internet service was sporadic, if not cut off completely, for many users.

It was, she said, "a perfect proxy for a terrorist attack," because it shows that there were no mechanisms in place to help individuals handle an unexpected, and briefly frightening, event.

In his testimony, Hunter acknowledged the challenges facing the OPM as it sought to disseminate information to federal workers amid the chaos.

"On the whole, our initial assessment is that our efforts were successful in light of these factors," Hunter said.

But Norton was unconvinced, saying agencies were far from perfecting a solid emergency response system and must strive to do better.

"It is your responsibility to inform federal employees who are located here and in this region what to do next, so in times of emergency, they are not caught red-handed, like last time. They literally had no idea what to do," " Norton said to Hunter.

She challenged Hunter and Fugate to establish an easy-to-use website within 30 days that would tell federal employees and citizens what to do in the event of an emergency.

She also asked them to hold a briefing with the Department of Homeland Security to analyze the emergency response to the earthquake and consider what might have been done differently.

Though Norton was told a briefing would take place, Hunter said on Thursday that, to his knowledge, it has not yet occurred.

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