Remembering 9/11: The impact, then and now
Sometimes, an event marks history with such ferocity that innumerable mundane occurrences taking place simultaneously are indelibly stamped in the memory of every person living at the time—each unique to the individual. These instances define a generation and change a nation’s trajectory in the broader scheme of human civilization: Pearl Harbor; the moon landing; the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Two decades on from that infamous day, when four commercial flights were hijacked by terrorists and nearly 3,000 people perished in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Penn., Americans are still haunted by the images of dust-covered victims stumbling from the wreckage—they’re still asking the same question: “Where were you at 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit?”
As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on Saturday, it’s hard to remember what pre-9/11 life was like—so much has changed. Before, tardy airline passengers could run directly to their boarding gates and breaking news was primarily disseminated via television shows, radio broadcasts or print newspapers. These days, social media platforms link viewers with events as they happen in real-time, and travelers must undergo a rigorous screening protocol before entering airport terminals.
These changes have been especially felt by local first responders, public officials, inspectors and government security agencies, all of which have fundamentally changed the way they operate.
Trillions of public dollars have been expended on public safety measures in the process.
“Questions such as ‘how did this happen?’ and ‘what is next?’ hung in the air of the entire country,” recalled Clarence E. Anthony, director of the National League of Cities (NLC) who was serving as mayor of South Bay, Fla., at the time. “Closer to home, the questions also included ‘will it happen again?’ and ‘could it happen here?’”
In the aftermath, analysts identified missteps in the nation’s response that could have been prevented with more preparation. When the planes struck, communication networks were suddenly overwhelmed and couldn’t handle the load. There wasn’t a robust incident management structure in place at the time, so coordination between jurisdictions and departments was limited at best. At Ground Zero, for example, firefighters weren’t aware the Twin Towers were in imminent danger of collapse until it was too late.
In response, the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a standardized structure for communication and command during an emergency, was developed by the United States Department of Homeland Security, which was itself created because of 9/11.
The system, established in 2004, put into place universal protocols intended to better connect responders and give them clear marching orders amid chaotic situations. These include using common terminology and speaking in plain English instead of 10 code, a unified chain of command, a modular organizational structure that can be adapted to meet an incident’s evolving needs and a reasonable span of control for managers—one supervisor can oversee up to seven subordinates.
Building and fire codes also changed.
Engineers determined the towers fell not because of the planes’ initial impact, but because the explosions blew fire proofing from steel structural components. Ensuing fire compromised the bare steel trusses, leading to what’s called a “pancake collapse.” From that analysis, the International Code Council (ICC) updated its minimum standards to include more robust fireproofing, self-luminous exit pathways, additional staircase requirements and stricter elevator egress specifications for high-rise buildings.
At the national level, federal officials identified preventable failures that were rooted in historic precedent—previously, each operated independently with limited inter-agency communication.
Leading up to the attacks, the CIA didn’t share the actionable intelligence it had gathered on terrorist activity with the FBI or others, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wasn’t initially included in a teleconference call with the North American Aerospace Defense Command as events unfolded, according to a brief from the National Commission on Terrorism.
“The single greatest structural cause for the September 11th problem was the wall that segregated or separated criminal investigators and intelligence agents,” then-Attorney General John Ashcroft testified to the 9/11 Commission in April 2004.
Among many federal actions that followed the attack, the Transportation Security Administration, which these days provides security at airports, was founded along with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent public safety broadband authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
Created in 2012, Congress at the time set aside $7 billion and allotted 20 megahertz of radio spectrum to replace the patchwork of networks that first responders operated on. FirstNet partnered with ATT to build the network in around 2016 and, today, it’s about 80 percent complete, according to the service’s website.
For city and county governments, hundreds of millions in federal funding was made available to metropolitan areas designated as potential targets of terror through the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative. While the money allowed city leaders to move ahead with projects, it also brought communities closer together.
“Local governments initially recognized the need to build both capabilities to prevent, prepare for, and respond to catastrophic disaster and other hazards such as terrorism. The significant influx of federal grant money made such choices easier,” recalled Juddson Freed, director of emergency management and homeland security for Ramsey County, Minn. He is also on the National Association of Counties’ Justice and Public Safety Committee and Resilient Counties Advisory Board and serves as the president of the International Association of Emergency Managers.
In an effort to minimize spending waste, Freed says he watched communities come together, noting a “recognition that has grown up since 9/11 that we don’t need to own all the resources we need for these changes—we can cooperate and leverage each other to ensure access to capabilities we don’t often need or cannot afford on our own,” he said. In Ramsey County, for example, “We emphasized training together, new techniques and information sharing.“
Today, while the post-9/11 funding streams have started to wane, the collaboration ties remain. And in more recent years, Freed noted natural disasters have “reawakened to the pressing need,” he said. Anthony noted the ongoing pandemic has similarly brought cities together in a regional response to the crisis.
After 9/11, there was “A new sense of cooperation and solidarity appeared across the country along with the fear and uncertainty. We saw this cooperation and solidarity on display once again during this pandemic and the various challenges of the past year and a half as local leaders worked together to address one unprecedented crisis after another,” Anthony said.
Along with community ties, 9/11’s physical devastation is also still being felt.
As of June, the Centers for Disease Control’s World Trade Center Health Program reported enrollment at more than 80,000 first responders and survivors. Among the most common conditions are chronic rhinosinusitis, acid reflux, cancer and asthma. Thousands of people have died in the last two decades from suicide or disease—eclipsing the number of victims who died during the attack itself.
These decades on, it’s impossible to quantify the psychological impact of Sept. 11—it was a generational tragedy that fundamentally transformed communities across the U.S., and continues to do so.