Lawmakers Critical of Area’s Hurricane Readiness, but Officials Defend Performance

Posted October 3, 2003 at 2:31pm

Under fire from House Members and area citizens, officials from local, state and federal agencies defended their actions during Hurricane Isabel in a hearing before the Government Reform Committee on Friday.

One of the leading topics was the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s decision to halt Metro operation Sept. 18, the day the hurricane was expected to strike. That decision compelled government officials and many private businesses to close for the day. But agency representatives repeatedly said the move was a necessary and justified measure.

“I agreed with the transportation decisions,” said Eric Tolbert, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response division. “The measures significantly reduced demands on response teams.”

But Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), whose district includes the heavily hit areas of Old Town Alexandria and Belle View, said some of the precautions taken prior to the hurricane were an overreaction, particularly Metro’s decision to stop services at 11 a.m. He also said post-disaster measures in his district were not adequate.

“Our power companies have to ensure the lights will go on despite weather,” said Moran, whose own home was without power for three days after the storm.

Another Virginia House Member, Tom Davis (R), also voiced concern. Calling transportation decisions “debatable,” the chairman reiterated the importance of the District of Columbia’s readiness for possible disasters.

Reporting that the hurricane turned off the lights for nearly 2 million Old Dominion residents — the largest power outage in the state’s history — Virginia Secretary of Public Safety John Marshall agreed improvements must be made. While Gov. Mark Warner (D) has declared he will conduct a review of the state’s performance, Marshall said he is confident of the public safety agencies’ actions.

“We did things right,” he told the panel, noting conference calls made to government offices, businesses, schools and federal agencies prior to the storm contributed to a collaborative effort across the state. “Key decision-makers across the national capital region acted in unison to make definitive decisions.”

Although many officials told the panel their agencies were performing reviews, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said they needed “a far more self-critical assessment.”

William Sim, president of the Potomac Electric Power Co., told the committee his company has hired James Lee Witt Associates, a consulting group specializing in public safety and emergency management, to review their performance during the hurricane. In his report, Sim said two-thirds of Pepco’s customers were without power.

Delivering the most emotional address of the morning, Belle View Condominium resident Leslie Violette stood before the panel as some of her fellow tenants listened in the audience.

“Our region can and should prepare and respond to future area emergencies more effectively,” she said. “We need to develop better means for prompt, early dissemination of information and warnings about approaching dangers.”

Violette went on to say that all 65 buildings in the condominium complex were flooded and that 17 of those homes remain uninhabitable. As treasurer of the Belle View Condominium Unit Owners Association, she also said no advice or direction was offered during county meetings prior to the hurricane.

“With more warning than we received here, valuables could have been preserved, vehicles could have moved to safety and special needs residents could have been cared for better,” Violette said.