"A nuclear event is exponentially more challenging than anything else," Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
McHale rated the government's preparation level at five on a scale of one to 10, in response to a question from committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.
That's better than the government's state of readiness before Sept. 11, 2001, McHale said, but worse than that for other disaster scenarios, including an attack using other types of weapons of mass destruction, like biological or chemical ones.
W. Craig Vanderwagen, assistant secretary of health and human services, pegged preparedness at "six, maybe five," while Arlington County (Va.) Fire Chief James Schwartz was even less positive.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison described a nuclear attack as "the greatest danger facing the United States" but also gave the most upbeat assessment -- seven or eight -- because "we know where we need to go."
Lieberman called the hearing, the fifth in a series scrutinizing the nation's ability to respond to a terrorist nuclear attack, to examine how the government will meet medical and other basic needs in the immediate aftermath.
All four witnesses said while the federal government is better prepared for large-scale disasters since the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, nuclear terrorism presents its own set of challenges.
"There are enormous gaps that still need to be filled," Schwartz said.
The biggest hurdle for federal agencies is coordination with state and local governments.
"We're pretty good at the poetry of strategy," McHale said, but he emphasized the need "to get realistic, detailed planning at the state and local level."
To plan effectively, "local responders need a real understanding of the probability of this kind of threat," Schwartz said. "Most communities aren't focusing on this risk as a reality."
But it is essential they do, because local emergency services are the first responders in a disaster. "We assume we are largely on our own for the first 24 to 48 hours," Schwartz said.
During that time, he said, effective communication with survivors is critical. Arlington County uses text messaging, a dedicated AM radio station and Reverse 9-1-1, an automated alert system that calls landlines and cell phones for real-time emergency communication.
But Paulison said such systems could be knocked out in an explosion. "Communications aren't going to be what they should be," he said.
Because it can take hours, if not days, for federal assistance to mobilize, preparing local agencies and institutions is vital, Vanderwagen said.
Hospitals are making progress, the HHS official said. Today, more than 400,000 people can be decontaminated from radiation exposure in three hours nationwide, an example of the changes put in place since 2002, when two-thirds of American hospitals had no decontamination facilities.
But when it comes to treating the more than 100,000 people who could be at risk of acute radiation syndrome in the event of a nuclear attack, Vanderwagen said, "We don't have much in the toolbox at this point."
The Department of Health and Human Services has put out a call for research into new medications that could treat the syndrome, but identifying and developing new drugs is a slow process.
And even when medication becomes available, making sure it reaches those who need it is also a challenge. Much of the burden of disaster relief falls on the National Guard, which itself may not be prepared.
"I continue to hear troubling assessments about the National Guard's readiness to provide civil services," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee's top-ranking Republican.
While acknowledging these frank assessments, FEMA's Paulison said his top priority is to continue building partnerships during the transition to a new administration after the November election. "Today, our operations and programs reflect the lessons learned in the past," he said.
Medill News Service