WASHINGTON – Local governments would be the first to respond to terrorist attacks and need federal support — perhaps as much as $3 billion — to do the job right, county government officials said Friday.
“We’re an army of locals on the front line of threats to our nation,” said Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry. “I hope the government is able to get the resources to local conscripts so our people will be as protected as any army.”
Curry was one of more than 40 county government officials attending a meeting of the National Association of Counties homeland defense committee Friday in Washington. They urged Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who spoke at the conference, to give the counties $3 billion for homeland defense and $835 million to improve nation’s health infrastructure to respond to bio-terrorism.
An association survey of its members’ terrorism readiness found many counties unprepared.
Most counties that responded to the survey had disaster plans that include all aspects of disaster mitigation and search and rescue operations, but fewer had plans for how to respond specifically to a terrorist attack.
Counties with more than a million residents had terrorist response plans before Sept. 11, but one-fifth of those did not specifically address chemical warfare. The smallest, mostly rural counties were less prepared: Only 22 percent had terrorist-response plans.
Sixteen Maryland counties participated in the survey, but their answers were not available Friday.
While the counties called on Ridge for financial help, he made no promises. He instead urged the counties to work with each other and with their state governments, and to avoid duplicating efforts. The counties must “collaborate and integrate resources like you’ve never done before,” he said.
“We have to be sensitive to maximizing effectiveness. That means maximizing the use of whatever money we get,” Ridge said.
Ridge did promise that his office would assemble a group of local government leaders from around the country to help develop and implement a comprehensive homeland defense strategy.
He said he understood the counties’ desire to “get money today and to fix it today,” but asked them to be patient as President Bush formulates his budget during the next two months. He also said there might be some funds available from last year’s budget.
Curry said money from the economic stimulus package that the House narrowly passed Wednesday should be redirected to pay for aid to counties.
“That money would be better applied to local governments get ready to respond to terrorism,” he said.
Curry also stressed how important it is for counties near Washington, like Prince George’s, to be prepared to respond to terrorism.
“Many people work in Washington, but live with us,” he said. “We have to be ready to respond as Washington’s ground zero.”