Have we learned enough?

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON | February 25, 2002



"More than 2,000 children now have a single parent or a non-parent family."

—Ed Jacoby, Jr.


When Ed Jacoby, Jr. told disaster response leaders from across the nation about what scares him, silence overtook the room.

"If there had been a package of nuclear material anywhere near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, think of how widespread the contamination. Think of the inability ever to inhabit that area again. These are the things that scare the hell out of me," said Jacoby, director of New York's emergency management office.

Speaking at a National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) meeting, he shared his personal journey in the wake of the terrorist attacks. "I call it the events of September 11th. I do not like to refer to it as nine-eleven or nine-one-one. I've been through a very tough time, and somehow I can't shorten the name for the scene that has been in front of me day after day."

Jacoby dedicated his presentation at NEMA to children who lost parents in the Sept. 11 attacks. "More than 2,000 children now have a single parent or a non-parent family."

Jacoby thanked, among many other groups, faith-based and community organizations that helped rescue workers survive what for many was the most difficult response they've ever undertaken.

"The Salvation Army and other voluntary groups served more than 10 million meals," Jacoby said. Many faith-based groups have also responded by offering spiritual care for people affected by the attacks. The Church World Service emergency response program launched a national initiative to train people to offer spiritual care during future crises.

This sense of caring for one another could offset the ugly aspects of a post-Sept. 11 world that Jacoby and others sometimes witness. "The city arrested a person for stealing six watches in a store in the basement of the rubble of the World Trade Center. The person had stolen a firefighter's uniform to get down there," said Jacoby. "And I don't know how many we didn't catch. But as far away as the southeastern states, somebody claimed she lost her sister, and filed a claim. Her sister was living with her and we caught her."

Then there were the well-meaning people who were, in some ways, just as difficult to cope with. "We had volunteers just show up -- unsolicited, unneeded, not requested," said Jacoby, who estimated somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people descended on ground zero.

And in order to accommodate them, "we had to set up another city," he said. "We had to feed them and take care of sanitation and other things. But we just couldn't use them."

Even skilled medical teams weren't always put to use -- "you either survived or you didn't," said Jacoby.

Material donations were just as challenging. Tractor-trailer loads of dubious items began arriving on the scene -- and, even worse, individual donations that had to be dealt with. "We had puppy donated that the donor said had to go to a child that lost a parent," remembered Jacoby.

But now that the volunteers have gone home, and the donations are tucked away in warehouses or distributed to those in need, Jacoby asked his colleagues: what's being done? And what have we learned?

Score one for debris management, Jacoby pointed out. "As of Feb. 20, 1.3 million tons of debris were gone. By mid-May debris removal could be finished," he said - ahead of original estimates.

And Jacoby asked: are we ready for future incidents?

Only if emergency managers can work more effectively with news and media organizations, he said. "We have to get good, accurate information."

And emergency managers need to pick alternate sites they're sure will work. "Do you have a place to go if your place is completely destroyed?" he asked his colleagues.

Jacoby also worries about the health of everyone breathing the stagnant dust at ground zero. "The long-term impact is going to be horrific," he said. Besides the hazards already detected, "how many cans of pesticide did somebody have in their desk drawer? I ended up with a stupid cough I couldn't get rid of."

With the poignancy of someone showing their beloved homeland, Jacoby shared slides of his personal memories of September 11. "There's the hotel that used to be right next to the World Trade Center. I probably spent 100 nights there in the last five years."

Another slide shows more than 100 people running away from the fire. Another shows the remains of a bus with who knows how many people on board. Still another shows a schematic of how the planes hit the towers. "One came from the north and one from the south. We had roughly 50,000 people in those buildings. Plus visitors. People always forget about the visitors. Both of the towers were 110 stories and they were 200 feet on each side."

The physical presence of the towers was matched by their financial might. "The destroyed financial district in New York City averaged $13 trillion in transactions every 24 hours," Jacoby said.

But now city officials are worried that businesses won't stay in New York City. "And most medium-size insurance companies will fail if we have another year like that," said Jacoby.

When it comes to responding to a disaster the magnitude of Sept. 11, "we need to look at this in a whole new light. The people that did this did an act of war. As far as I'm concerned, we're still in that mode of war. All you have to do is look at Dan Pearl. He brought no ill bearing to the people that killed him. But those people are out working diligently to cause even more harm."

All that's taking place while the harm from September's tragedy is growing. "We're beginning to see suicide, we're beginning to see divorce."

But some things are slowly coming back, he said. The state rebuilt the road around the World Trade Center site so trucks could take debris to a barge, which took it to a landfill. "When we built the road back we used every 10-foot jersey barrier in the state of New York. Cars had to be searched for bodies and for criminal evidence," Jacoby said. "We're trying to archive every piece of this. This will be studied for years."

There are hundreds of thousands of individual stories to be told, Jacoby said, remembering where he was Sept. 11 - in Montana attending NEMA meetings. "I was sitting in a restaurant eating breakfast by myself and someone I know came in and said, 'Ed, a small plane just hit the World Trade Center.' I looked up at the TV and knew it wasn't a small plane. I was on the phone when the second one hit. I knew it was a terrorist attack."

Jacoby boarded an F-16 to come home.

Then the New York City Office of Emergency Management, located in a building adjacent to the World Trade Center, burnt down. Jacoby's staff lost their entire infrastructure and their whole communications system. Yet they were able to move to backup communications. "We moved our office about five times in six days."

Now they might build a new emergency operations center in Brooklyn, he said.

Jacoby thanked the many groups that helped. The emergency management office was activated right away, and immediately 500 state police out of a force of 4,000 were deployed," he remembered. "Never before have we deployed state police in New York City."

There were also crews with DNA assessment capabilities, pharmaceutical experts, hundreds of fire and police crews, telephone service restorers, medical teams, and people to operate infrared and other thermal detection devices to detect hot spots. And many more, all doing their jobs the best way they could in a situation they'd never experienced.

"You all came," said Jacoby. "Now I hope we have a pool of people across the country who have some knowledge of what that catastrophic event included."

Jacoby envisions "an overhead team similar to the Forest Service."

Every day Jacoby finds himself coping with the emotional aftermath. "We fly across the Hudson in a helicopter and we think we're high because we're even with the tall buildings that stand by what used to be the World Trade Center.

"When I came out of a bus or a taxi, I always looked for the World Trade Center to get my bearings. It's like a piece of your life is missing."

"I hope all the people who were there took time out to feel the way they feel."


Related Topics:

Terrorism wave proves challenging

Counseling, prayers offered in bombing wake

Churches respond to Boston bombings


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