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Federal environmental help


How soon was it was clear that, besides being a catastrophe on many levels, it was also an environmental disaster? “It was obvious from the very beginning,” says Sam Benson of the New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.


“City health officials were out there before anyone—before OSHA.”


Since this was the first time a New York Governor had deployed the federal Civil Support Team to assist first responders in identifying hazardous materials related to disasters, Governor Pataki also suspended some of the regulations regarding transportation and handling of hazardous waste to expedite the removal of debris. The barge set up to remove toxic debris would later set off a huge community controversy, as it sat very close to Stuyvesant High School and several large apartment complexes.


There was plenty of federal help, but many of the decisions ultimately affecting public health fell to the local government. Jessica Leighton, Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Disease Prevention, says she is proud of the speed with which her department responded. 


“City health officials were out there before anyone—before OSHA,” she says. “Over 200 people in DOH were at work, particularly the sanitarians, because in the first few days, there were more concerns about environmental health than anything.”


And in the first 24 hours, it was the local environmental health department professionals who faced unprecedented challenges, including mountains of dust and debris containing mostly pulverized cement, fiberglass, glass, and building materials but as yet unknown and varying amounts of toxic metals, plastics and other compounds, and burning plastics and fuels as well as smoke and fumes from the building fires.

Photo: Paul Olivier

“When the towers came down our only thought was the safety of those below and living and working in the area,” says McKinney.

Although the city took the lead in the crisis, many state and federal agencies stepped in to help coordinate. That was particularly helpful, as New York City officials had no reason to be well versed in the chain of command operating for federal emergencies.

EPA Region II would be joined by responders from all 10 regions, all dispatched immediately to New York City, says Carpenter, as well as Coast Guard strike teams, because it was a potential coastal emergency. 

But EPA’s entrance into the emerging crisis would come from Washington, D.C., where the Agency’s emergency coordinator, Jim Makris were ironically engaged in a meeting with the agency Administrator about EPA’s emergency management capabilities.

They received a call and were told to turn on the television to see the attack details. The officials then ended their meeting and opened the emergency operations center (EOC) immediately thereafter to begin disaster operations, according to Ed Terry, manager of EPA's EOC. Shortly thereafter, EPA headquarters established links with all of its east coast regional offices to begin coordination and support of the New York City response efforts.

One of the city Health Department’s greatest assets, says McKinney, was Ron Burger of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within hours, he was one of the first CDC personnel to travel to New York City aboard a chartered private aircraft that had been granted flight clearance by the Federal Aviation Administration, shortly after it had grounded all commercial planes.

Burger, the Senior Emergency Response Coordinator leading the CDC assistance to the New York City Department of Health's public health response to the World Trade Center attack he says, essentially “taught us the Federal Response System. He showed us that a variety of federal and state assets were available to us, and how to request them and how to follow up to ensure delivery,” says McKinney.

The federal “Syndromic Surveillance” system compares prevailing health care data—hospital admittance rates, patient complaints, physicians’ diagnoses, and even sales of cough syrup—to rates in the past.

Burger helped the city health department pull together its broad scale emergency medical efforts. He helped the city watch for signs of possible secondary diseases, including infectious diseases and the effects of dust and other debris and assisted rescue workers who had been injured or exposed to health-threatening materials, carrying out the the federal “Syndromic Surveillance” program. This system compares prevailing health care data—hospital admittance rates, patient complaints, physicians’ diagnoses, and even sales of cough syrup—to rates in the past. If there is too much of a difference between them, flags are raised, signaling public health officials of an unusual trend.

Burger, who arrived on the afternoon of the 11th  was also among those charged with making sure that the national pharmaceutical stockpile “push package”—an array of equipment and supplies needed by hospitals and emergency medical service people, such as sutures, bandages as well as antidotes in the event of bioterrorism—would safely arrive, which it did by early afternoon.

The cargo came on a plane when all others had been grounded, says Burger, and it “was the size of a football field.”

But many of the preparations made by CDC, like assuring adequate supplies of tetanus vaccine, would tragically not be needed.

As health officials were sadly to realize, however, no survivors were discovered in the wreckage after the morning of September 12th. “For several days, we all kept thinking there would be hundreds of survivors,” he adds. [Only four or five firefighters were found buried and rescued on the second day]

As a big city, too, New York had a large medical “surge capacity,” a large number of hospitals prepared to handle an abnormally large influx of patients. Tragically, in the case of this mass-casualty event, there were many more beds and doctors available than survivors in need of medical care.

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