Public Affairs missions is untold 9-11 story
September 14, 2011
I was at my desk on Sept. 11, 2001, with the radio tuned to a local Boston talk radio station when one of the hosts said, "You're not going to believe this, but some nut just flew a plane into the World Trade Center."
I immediately turned on the TV and watched another plane slam into the second tower. The world was changing with each heartbeat, without notice, without remorse, and without hesitation I called New York District and said that I was only an hour or two away and could fly in to assist should the initial federal response team need a hand.
I am the public affairs officer of New England District. Little did I know I would be on the ground the next day. In a New York minute, the lives of all Americans changed. It wasn't just the physical skyline of Manhattan that altered forever, but the psychological landscape of the world.
By 11 p.m. on 9-11, New England District received the mission to establish an Emergency Response and Recovery Office in New York City.
Both New York District and North Atlantic Division headquarters were declared "victim" as a result of the attack. The initial goal was to set up a functional operation until our New York offices were reconstituted. The estimated duration of the mission was 4-6 days. It lasted 22.
The initial Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) New York City disaster plan was based on a Cold War 1962 scenario that placed the FEMA Emergency Operations Center (EOC) 22 miles from a nuclear blast site in Manhattan.
The FEMA EOC set up operations at the Joyce Kilmer Army Reserve Center in Edison, N.J. The challenge for public affairs was to implement a central communication structure that would support the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the total federal response led by FEMA.
But to accomplish that objective, coordination had to be initialized with the FEMA Region 2 and the FEMA EOC chief of staff. Within six hours of arrival, coordination with FEMA had been established, promises made, and USACE was welcomed into the FEMA Joint Information Center (JIC) at the Javits Convention Center in New York City 3.5 miles north of Ground Zero.
The most pressing need was to establish communications with the City of New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York District and North Atlantic Division, the news media and the public. Successful coordination with the city and mayor's office would be key to the success of the PA missions.
To gain the confidence of the city, I began attending the daily coordination/planning meeting at the Police Academy in lower Manhattan. In addition, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, the chief of engineers, assigned Joe Seebode, NY/NJ Harbor program manager, as his direct liaison to the mayor and the City of New York.
Within days, USACE was accepted by the city as a key player in the city's and mayor's communication efforts. By Sept. 14, USACE had gained the respect of the city by accomplishing a quick coordination loop with FEMA for release of information. (This would evolve into the Corps/FEMA Daily Media Advisory.)
The Corps' PA ability to balance differing messages with differing audiences and stakeholders was key to keeping my promise to Giuliani and FEMA to communicate the total federal response message to the media and general public.
By Sept. 15, the key messages and strategies for the Corps' role at the World Trade Center were developed, coordinated with FEMA and NYC, and part of the FEMA JIC operations. Those operations were consolidated from Edison and Javits to Pier 90. The first of the USACE PA personnel began to arrive on Sept. 16.
In lower Manhattan, Peter Shugert, public affairs officer of New York District, had exited the subway. When he reached the top of the stairs, he saw hundreds of New Yorkers staring in disbelief at the gaping hole in the North Tower.
Three blocks from the World Trade Center, he witnessed the second aircraft hit the South Tower. Shugert made his way to the Federal Building six blocks away, but was denied access by the Federal Protective Service -- the building was being evacuated. Shugert made his way back to his previous position and took several photographs, figuring that photo documentation was essential.
When the NYPD said they thought there was a third plane headed that way, the crowd stampeded. Shugert, who lives in Brooklyn, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of others. One third of his way across the bridge, he snapped a series of photos as the South Tower collapsed. The Brooklyn Bridge shuddered, as did the souls of thousands of us," Shugert said. "We looked on in anger and total shock and disbelief."
By the time Shugert walked through a warm cloud of particle dust and reached home, the North Tower had collapsed.
Public affairs strategies
In 2001, there were no digital cameras, imperfect Internet access, cell phone service in NYC was limited to Verizon (all other cell towers were atop the WTC), and Twitter and Facebook did not exist.
So our challenges were great, and my baseline doctrine was an Army Field Manual, FM 46-1, Army Public Affairs. Our goals:
- Ensure that the public knows USACE is working in close partnership with the City of New York, the State of New York, FEMA and other federal agencies in recovery and response activities.
- Stress the work that the city, state and the other federal agencies have done in their response.
- Establish a "one-voice" message to ensure accurate and timely information.
- Handle news media per established protocol.
- Develop and provide key agency messages and program descriptions in written format to leadership and USACE employees working at various sites.
Immediately establish strong communication channels with other federal agencies and section areas within the organization.
- Provide consistent messages to external audiences and coordinate information received with other functions.
- Staff the JIC round the clock as the city and FEMA directs, or until the situation does not warrant it.
- Stress that USACE was always available as a source of information.
- Monitor non-traditional public information sites, primarily the Internet, to gauge public opinion or detect complaints based on lack of information. Be prepared to suggest methods to improve communication to the many diverse communities in Manhattan.
Anticipate potential issues/problems and monitor for trends.
- Ensure the transmission of consistent and accurate monitoring of newspapers, television and radio broadcasts. Make corrections quickly. Identify trends and work on strategies with appropriate federal and city emergency response and other agencies to eliminate or minimize problems that may develop.
In Little Rock, Ark., Bob Faletti, public affairs officer of Little Rock District, was signing in retirees for the annual Retiree Day celebration when he heard on the radio that a plane hit the WTC. He assumed a small plane lost in the fog, probably a Cessna with a student pilot.
Then reports that a second plane had hit the towers and a third attacked the Pentagon put the situation into perspective. "I felt no different than any other American, I needed to be there; I needed to help. I would drive if I had to," Faletti said. "I reported in to Pier 90 on Sept. 18.
"I turned 54 on Oct. 5," Faletti said. "I completed 35 years service on Sept. 11, 2001. I served almost six years on active duty, including two tours in Vietnam as an infantry officer. None of that prepared me for the physical and emotional destruction caused by the terrorist attacks on the WTC and Pentagon.
"I wanted to be a member of the USACE PAO response team because of a strong desire to help those affected, and to provide the PAO support our engineers and other teams would need," Faletti said. "I knew the engineers and others would do the work, and I knew that PA could be a force multiplier by providing internal and external communication support."
Beginning Sept. 12, the world's news media attention focused on the city's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Press Center, first located at the Police Academy in lower Manhattan, and later at Pier 92. (The city's original EOC was in the WTC and destroyed in the attack.) The OEM was set up with functional areas from all city offices and many federal agencies, including the mayor's media office.
The Corps' NYC JIC Liaison was assigned to assist. Although he was a part of the Corps/FEMA contingent, the position effectively worked for the City of New York. The primary responsibility of those at the NYC JIC was to work USACE issues, but it also was important to answer media queries of all kinds. Those available in the press center, working around the clock, pitched in to handle anything regarding information the city, state and federal agencies were attempting to disseminate or react to.
Bond of trust
Within days, a bond of trust and goodwill built among the permanent city staff and USACE people. There was no doubt that without USACE help, the city would have had a difficult time handling the information crisis. In the words of the city's assistant press officer sometime during week two, "You folks are the greatest, and we couldn't have done this without you."
The federal PA augmentation also included FEMA, a small business representative and a Red Cross member. They helped the city handle the media portion of the crisis.
The USACE contingent extended well beyond their functional areas to answer queries and handle problems that had more to do with city business than USACE. A willingness to sacrifice personal interests to serve the immediate needs of the city was an important development. It had to be sincere, and it had to stand the test of time.
It took the "outsiders" working 12-14 hours a day for several weeks to establish this goodwill and trust. Once in place, it was indelible and it was critical to future coordination between USACE and the City of New York.
By week two, the WTC PA Team at the NYC JIC had gone from outside assistance to bona fide members of the city team. Both FEMA and USACE had the ear of the mayor's office through the mayor's press chief and scheduler.
It wasn't exactly privileged status, but close. The WTC PA Team was in a position to go directly to agency chiefs in city government for both information and coordination. This was a crucial advantage for USACE to use when needed, and there was a lot of sweat equity built into these professional relationships.
The WTC PA Team was referred to exclusively as "the Corps of Engineers" in the overall emergency response. The mayor and the OEM chief were constantly conducting tours for news media and visiting dignitaries. More than once, the OEM chief pointed to a WTC PA Team member wearing the USACE emergency shirt and said, "We've got a lot of help here, including the Corps of Engineers."
Also, as ESF-3 duties reduced over time, the ESF-3 presence in the city EOC was removed, and public affairs were the only USACE folks working fill-time in the NYC OEM on Pier 92.
In Honolulu, Larry Hawthorne was awakened at 3 a.m. by a call from his daughter. "We're at war, Dad," she said from her post as an intelligence officer at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. "You'd better get up and turn on the television."
"I tuned in just about the time the second World Trade Center tower collapsed, got dressed and went to my office at Fort Shafter," said Hawthorne, public affairs officer of Honolulu District. "It took almost two hours to get through security, but I finally made it. It was surreal to be so far away from the attack and yet feel part of it. I was overwhelmed with a desire to do something, and the one thing available was to be part of a public affairs emergency action team. I immediately volunteered and a week later I arrived at the FEMA JIC on Pier 90 in New York.
"My job was to work with the city's Emergency Operations Center in Pier 92," Hawthorne said. "It was bedlam in the city's media center, but it was as close as I could get to help the victims of 9-11. I fielded hundreds of calls from media and the general public, but my chance telephone conversation to provide reassurance and what little comfort I could to the widowed wife of a victim is one I will never forget.
"I've worked floods and earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Hawaii, but never have I felt a more compelling need to help as I did during the World Trade Center response," Hawthorne said. "How lucky I was to play a part."
I know I speak for all responders to this first attack of the war on terrorism when I say that a passion grew in all of us to contribute to the greater good by telling the stories of the real heroes so that the American public could understand the catastrophe that enveloped Manhattan and the U.S.
Our world changed at 8:46 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, and we knew that when the terrorists were held accountable our new world would be a better place. We knew because we saw the seeds planted by the New York City firemen and police, by the USACE structural engineers, by the search and rescue teams and by the people of New York. This is one harvest that continues to be tended.
I still feel that passion, and I'm still proud to have been part of that moment. My mementos are my memories of making a contribution that would grow and become a sense of resolve to ensure that those who were murdered did not die in vain.