Campus & Community

FEMA officials recount agency’s role in Sept. 11

4 min read

“The events of Sept. 11 have changed the way America responds to disasters,” Daniel A. Craig, regional director (Region One) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told a Harvard audience last month. “FEMA needs to lead the charge in implementing these changes.”

At a presentation held as part of the “Preventive Measures: The Politics of Disasters” Extension School course at Emerson Hall on April 15, Craig and fellow senior FEMA officials related their experiences during the Sept. 11 emergency and FEMA’s role in coordinating disaster relief in lower Manhattan.

Craig revealed the first day at his presidential-appointed post as the New England regional director was atypical: He began on Sept. 11. “Imagine getting a call on Sept. 10 at 8:30 in the evening” that you have gotten the job you applied for, “and the next morning all hell breaks loose” on the scale of Sept. 11, “Preventive Measures” Professor Doug Bond said while introducing Craig.

“The true American heroes of Sept. 11 were the first responders: the police, firemen, and EMS workers,” Craig said. FEMA relies on “first responders,” local officials and volunteers who are initially on-site at emergencies and alert FEMA of the scope of the disaster. “FEMA will continue to be there to support the first responders and make sure they have the tools to do their jobs,” he said.

FEMA’s main responsibility is to coordinate disaster relief among local, state and federal agencies. “Everything we do goes to promoting partnerships; as FEMA has limited specific assets, we rely heavily on state and local capabilities,” Craig said.

Theodore A. (Ted) Monette Jr., director of the FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Program, told the audience, “Obviously, Sept. 11 was different than anything any of us had ever seen before. Initially, we didn’t know what the threat was and we didn’t know what was coming next.”

He noted the agency’s disaster blueprint, the Federal Response Plan, proved “viable under any circumstance, whether it be the small two-county flood or something like the World Trade Center” disaster. Monette recounted how well the 27 agencies and departments that assist FEMA as part of its emergency support functions “pitched in” during the Sept. 11 crisis.

FEMA is charged with coordinating the capabilities of agencies such as the Department of Transportation; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the American Red Cross; urban, search and rescue teams; the National Communications System; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the General Services Administration at disasters.

FEMA had to quickly assemble the full scope of its national assets in the New York area. “The agency brought in Urban, Search and Rescue (USR) teams; mortuary teams; and veterinarian teams to take care of USR team’s [human-sniffing] dogs,” Monette said. “Through the Red Cross, we served 15 million meals in lower Manhattan” to rescue workers and others.

Workers, during the initial excavation of the World Trade Center site, sifted through 1.5 million tons of debris by hand, searching for human remains and evidence. FEMA also assembled a team of forensic pathologists to examine human remains and determine identities. A Navy hospital ship was docked nearby to assist overburdened hospitals with the injured.

The damaged infrastructure surrounding the twin towers buildings had to be assessed as many large buildings were in precarious states. “We did numerous flights over the disaster area with sensors to determine which buildings were moving,” Monette noted.

Complicating FEMA’s Sept. 11 mission were the tragic deaths of more than 300 firefighters when the buildings came down. “A great deal of [the firefighters’] leadership was lost that morning,” Monette explained. FEMA was also without the use of one of its emergency management centers located at the World Trade Center.

Barbara T. Russell, director of the FEMA Mobile Operations Division that provides emergency mobile air transportation and mobile telecommunications, said her division played a critical role in delivering telecommunications capabilities to lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 tragedy. “We even supported the FBI with emergency hotlines in New York and Washington,” Russell said.

In addition to telecommunications capabilities, the Mobile Operations Division vehicles, large futuristic-looking vans, also generate stand-alone power, and the division utilizes tankers for distributing potable water in cases where the water supply has been tainted by a disaster.

FEMA, established in 1979, only assists with federal disaster relief when, at the request of a governor, a major emergency is declared by the president. According to Regional Director Craig, “President Bush has approved about 50 percent of these federal disaster relief requests since taking office.”

Currently, first responders are being actively recruited as part of President Bush’s Citizen Corps program. The program’s goal is the recruitment of 200,000 new volunteers. Craig challenged the Extension Schoolo class to become more involved in civic service and “volunteer as a responder with your local council of the Citizen Corps.”