In 1882, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide disaster relief to flood victims, and since then USACE has rendered aid in the aftermath of hundreds of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes. However, despite more than a century of experience in dealing with tragedy, both USACE and the nation struggled to come to grips with the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Ultimately, USACE would be the only Army major command with boots-on-the-ground missions in the wake of 9-11.
On that bright, clear September morning, terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners. They crashed two planes into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and later flew a third aircraft into the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked aircraft crashed near Shanksville, Penn., forced to the ground as the passengers fought with terrorists for control of the aircraft. In all, nearly 3,000 people perished in the attacks.
News of the attacks spread quickly to USACE officials. Col. John O'Dowd, the New York District commander at the time, was holding a meeting in his office a half-mile from the World Trade Center when he saw a plane flying low over Manhattan. Forty-five seconds later he heard an explosion and the Federal Building shuddered when the first plane hit.
At USACE Headquarters, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, chief of engineers at the time, was addressing a gathering of retirees when an aide handed him a note telling him that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Flowers immediately ended the briefing and strode directly to the Emergency Operations Center.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Rhoades, commander of North Atlantic Division (NAD) at the time, was driving to a dredging conference in Atlantic City when he learned of the attack. He quickly headed back to New York City and, finding the bridges and tunnels into the city closed, took a boat into lower Manhattan.
Arriving at the World Trade Center complex in late morning, Rhoades was the first Army official on the scene. In a call to the chief of engineers, Rhoades compared the devastation at the World Trade Center to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rhoades told Flowers that the attacks would warrant a massive federal response.
Soon after the towers collapsed, New York District evacuated its offices in the Javitz Building. The NAD commander declared New York a victim district and turned to the New England and Philadelphia districts for support.
At the same time, USACE began mobilizing its emergency response resources. The afternoon of the attack, USACE sent its Deployable Tactical Operations Centers (DTOCs) to New York City, and at the same time began mobilizing its debris, search and rescue, and structural subject matter experts for deployment.
That evening, Tom Creamer, head of NAD's operations, readiness, and regulatory functions, huddled with Rhoades to plan the division's response. The two men agreed that the division needed to define its response organization; maintain its relationship with its customer, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); augment its communication capability; and work with the news media.
Meanwhile, the Engineer Company of the Military District of Washington was at the Pentagon. Specialists in collapsed building rescue, the MDW Engineer Company arrived at the Pentagon in the early afternoon of Sept. 11 and spent the next 10 days searching for survivors, shoring up the building, and removing debris.
Several days later, the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) sent two 500-kilowatt low-voltage generators to the Pentagon to provide power for relief operations. The 249th is the only prime power generation unit in the U.S. Army, and the only active-duty unit assigned directly to USACE.
Getting relief workers to New York City proved difficult because commercial aviation was grounded for several days after the attack.
For debris subject matter expert Allen Morse, a plane from Mississippi Valley Division picked him up in the Virgin Islands and flew him to New York City. Many other USACE personnel drove to New York.
Ultimately, USACE provided rescue and structural engineers to monitor the debris pile and the condition of surrounding buildings during search and rescue operations at Ground Zero. Five debris planning and response teams that monitored the debris removal effort helped staff the Disaster Field Office at Pier 90, and later helped coordinate debris management operations at the Staten Island Landfill.
At the height of its operations in New York City, more than 300 USACE personnel were engaged in relief operations after the terrorist attacks. The largest mission was coordinating the removal and inspection of 1.6 million tons of debris from the World Trade Center. Initially, the city began removing the debris by truck, but later elected to transport it by barge to its Staten Island Landfill.
But transporting the debris to Staten Island was only the first step of an arduous process. Unlike the vegetative and construction debris typically produced by a natural disaster, the debris removed from the World Trade Center site was part of an ongoing criminal investigation that involved dozens of federal, state and local government agencies. So all of the debris coming to Staten Island had to be carefully examined for human remains, personal effects and other evidence related to the attacks.
Within days of the attack, a joint task force of New York City Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel began inspecting the debris at the landfill. When the task force found that it could not inspect the 3,000 to 5,000 tons of debris that were arriving every day from Manhattan, it asked FEMA for help, and in early October FEMA turned to USACE.
Fortunately, USACE leaders had anticipated such a request and in late September had requested that Phillips and Jordan, a Knoxville-based debris management contractor, come to Staten Island to observe operations at the site. Consequently, when the FEMA tasking came, USACE and its contractor were ready to assist.
Phillips and Jordan and the Corps quickly helped streamline and mechanize the debris inspection program. Operations at the landfill ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and inspectors ultimately examined 1.6 million tons of debris. During that process, police officers recovered 90,000 pieces of personal property along with sufficient human remains to identify 150 victims.
"The Corps' work at the Staten Island Landfill was the organization's greatest contribution to the Sept. 11 recovery effort," said Maj. Gen. Robert Griffin, director of Civil Works at the time.
In the summer of 2002, soon after the Corps completed relief operations in New York, USACE conducted after action reviews to access the effectiveness of its efforts. USACE review teams found room for improvement:
- Communications difficulties hampered the early stages of the relief operations.
- Many USACE emergency operations centers (EOC), staffed primarily to handle natural disasters, had difficulty handling the classified message traffic generated by the attacks.
- A number of EOCs lacked sufficient staff to operate 24 hours a day for an extended period of time.
But on a larger scale, the Corps' response to the Sept. 11 attacks also confirmed the strength and resilience of the Corps' emergency management framework. Historically, during the past century, the Corps' nationwide network of districts and divisions has always provided USACE with a local presence that few other federal agencies could match, and the attacks in New York confirmed that again.
For example, New York District has a large civil works program, so district personnel were intimately familiar with the geography of the city and had strong working relationships with city and state officials. Consequently, when New York City needed engineering support, it could turn to USACE, an organization that it had worked with for decades.
USACE also had considerable success anticipating its customers' requirements to speed relief to the affected areas. Maj. Gen. Carl Strock, director of Military Programs at the time, said that emergency response "goes back to that business of getting on the ground, seeing what needs to be done, and then calling in the assets rather than expecting people to on their own understand what you can do for them and ask you to do it. So I think that was a big lesson learned for me, was to ride to the sound of the guns and push support. Don't wait to be pulled in."
The Corps' response to the events of Sept. 11 also owed much of its success to the changes implemented in its emergency operations program in the late 1990s. The initiative, called "Readiness 2000," reconfigured the Corps' emergency management community from district-centered resources to a single corporate concept of operations based on shared planning and response capabilities.
Notable Readiness 2000 initiatives included:
- Formation of planning response teams (PRT),
- Centralized emergency management training,
- Development of the DTOS,
- Development and awarding of pre-negotiated contracts for most USACE emergency operation missions.
These initiatives stood USACE in good stead after Sept. 11. The debris PRTs helped coordinate the removal and inspection of literally a mountain of debris, DTOS provided desperately needed command and control facilities to the New York City firefighters, and Phillips and Jordan used its Advanced Contracting Initiative contract to quickly supply crucial debris management expertise.
Change in posture
The attacks of Sept. 11 also marked a pronounced shift in the Corps' emergency response posture. Lt. Col. Gerry Mahaffee, director of the USACE Operations Center (UOC) at the time, noted that before Sept. 11 the Corps' emergency operations community focused largely on natural disasters. That changed after Sept. 11. After the terrorist attacks, USACE acquired a significant contingency operations mission, and in the words of the UOC director, "I don't think we can ever go back."
As USACE and the nation approaches the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, much has changed since that bright September morning. The nation has gone to war twice, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, and thousands of USACE employees have volunteered to participate in USACE reconstruction operations in those countries.
Emergency operations have continued, notably responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita of 2005, the earthquake in Haiti, and the widespread flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers earlier this year.
Yet despite different missions and locations, the USACE response has always been the same, Essayons, "Let Us Try."