9/11: Katrina Started at Ground Zero

By David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz
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Nothing else worked that day. The President was flying haplessly around the country looking distinctly unpresidential; the Vice President was in a bunkered panic. The military couldn’t scramble armed jets and anything else that could go wrong did. But one thing worked, and it worked splendidly — the New York City, as well as federal, public-health system.

While the World Trade Center was burning fiercely and about to become a vast cloud of toxic smoke and ash, public health officials were already mobilizing. Within hours, hospitals had readied themselves to receive the injured; hundreds of ambulances were lined up along the West Side Highway awaiting word to race to the scene; the city’s public health department had opened its headquarters to receive hundreds of people stricken by smoke inhalation, heart attacks, or just pure terror; the Department of Health had already begun providing gas masks and other protective equipment to doctors, evacuation personnel, and first responders of all sorts. From bandages and surgical tools to antibiotics and radiation-detection equipment, the federal Centers for Disease Control readied immense plane-loads of emergency supplies, ferrying them up to New York’s LaGuardia Airport aboard some of the few planes allowed to fly in the days after September 11th.

Despite the general panic and the staggering levels of destruction, even seemingly inconsequential or long-range potential health problems were attended to: Restaurants were broken into to empty thousands of pounds of rotting food from electricity-less refrigerators, counters tops, and refrigeration rooms; vermin infestations were averted; puddles were treated to stop mosquitoes from breeding so that West Nile virus would not affect the thousands of police, fire, and other search-and-rescue personnel working at Ground Zero.

In the face of a great and unexpected catastrophe, this is the way it was supposed to be — and (for those who care to be nostalgic) after 5 years of the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, not the way it’s ever likely to be again. One of the great ironies of 9/11 will pass unnoticed in the various memorials and remembrances now descending upon us: In the wake of the attacks, as the Bush administration claimed it was gearing up to protect us against any further such moments by pouring money into the Pentagon and the new Department of Homeland Security, its officials were also reorienting, privatizing, militarizing, and beginning to functionally dismantle the very public health system that made the catastrophe of 9/11 so much less disastrous than it might have been.

It took no time at all for the administration to start systematically undercutting the efforts of experienced health administrators in New York and at the national Centers for Disease Control. By pressing them to return the city to “normal” and feeding them doctored information about dust levels — ignoring scientific uncertainties about the dangers that lingered in the air — the administration lied to support a national policy of denial.

Bush-style Safety

Putting in place a dysfunctional bureaucracy would soon undermine the public’s trust in the whole health system in downtown Manhattan. In the process, it also effectively crippled systems already in existence to protect workers, local residents, and children attending school in the area. As a result, what promised to be an extraordinary example of a government bureaucracy actually working turned into a disaster and later became the de facto model for the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Here’s how it worked: First, Karl Rove and George Bush saw an opportunity — mounting the pile of World Trade Center rubble — for a public-relations coup in devastated Manhattan that could instantly reverse the President’s distinctly unpresidential day on 9/11 and his administration’s previously weak polling numbers. Second, Washington pushed New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and local officials to get with the program and re-open Wall Street (which the 9/11 attacks had shut down) faster than was advisable. Third, city officials were told by administration emissaries that, despite the pall hanging over Ground Zero, all was well with the air and water in lower Manhattan and normal life should resume.

Finally, although nearly the entire city could, for months to come, smell the rancid co-mingling of burning plastics, asbestos, lead, chromium, mercury, vinyl chloride, benzene, and scores of other toxic materials as well as decaying human flesh, Bush’s appointees in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continually bombarded city officials with reports claiming that the air was certifiably “safe” to breathe. As EPA Administrator Christy Whitman put it, “There’s no need for the general public to be concerned.” To this day we do not know the extent of contamination or level of exposure to which residents, workers, and students in the area were (and are still being) subjected.

Everyone got on the band wagon: the President mounted the pile of rubble without respiratory protection, signaling to firemen, policemen, and volunteers that he-men shouldn’t worry about the towers having become a toxic waste-pile the likes of which the developed world hadn’t seen since Chernobyl. Under the goading of EPA officials, even the venerable New York City Department of Health (despite internal dissention) began proclaiming lower Manhattan safe for the return of residents. (At that time, Lower Manhattan’s congressional representative Jerrold Nadler was arguing that it was still dangerously toxic.) The Board of Education, feeling the heat from the Giuliani administration — in turn, reacting to pressure from Washington — ordered schools just a few blocks from Ground Zero reopened and thousands of students were sent back to the neighborhood.

New Yorkers, complaining of stinging and watery eyes, knew this was not, in any conventional sense, a “safe” area. Karl Rove and the President, however, were focused on solidifying the Republican Party’s hold on the nation. In that context, the possible effects on the lives and lungs of a few hundred thousand New Yorkers was a minor matter.

The policy worked like a charm — at least initially. The clearing of the pile was accomplished with miraculous speed. City authorities had estimated it would take two to three years, but thousands of city employees, undocumented workers, and volunteers labored feverishly and often without protection, in part inspired by the patriotic fervor that gripped Americans. The 1.8 million tons of debris was gone in a mere eight and a half months. And, miraculously, the President’s poll numbers, down in the toxic dumps just weeks before the 9/11 attacks, rose dramatically.

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