Chertoff: Disaster Response in Washington Could Prove Challenging

WASHINGTON_Responding to catastrophes in the U.S. capital could prove more challenging than elsewhere in the country, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday.

Chertoff declared himself "particularly concerned" with preparedness plans in the city.

Chertoff's comments, four years after the Defense Department's Pentagon building was hit by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, underscore the view that Washington remains a prime target for disasters.

The large federal work force that would need to be evacuated, along with hundreds of media covering such an incident and a government struggling to continue operating, would compound a smooth response in Washington, Chertoff told an Aspen Institute forum on homeland security and preparedness.

"An event in the District of Columbia would impose challenges of a different kind than anywhere else," Chertoff said.

Asked to elaborate, he said: "I'm not meaning to suggest there's a big problem in the District. But what I am suggesting is, I think the District will be more challenging because of the large federal footprint than most places. And therefore I think I'm particularly concerned about making sure we are constantly improving and doing the best we can to sharpen up the plan."

Chertoff noted communication failures between Homeland Security and District of Columbia police and other responders during a brief but potent May 11 scare when a single-engine Cessna aircraft mistakenly wandered into restricted airspace over Washington. The Capitol and White House were temporarily evacuated during the incident, but Mayor Anthony Williams later complained that city officials weren't told about the threat until the all-clear had sounded.