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September 11, 2001. Before, and After.

Before that September attack, CDC was busy with a multitude of concerns that embody the work of public health. The headlines before Sept. 11, 2001, tracked CDC's work on potential health concerns from mosquitoes that stowed away on imported lucky bamboo to a Norwalk-like virus outbreak at two summer camps. Internationally, CDC was answering health questions during a refugee crisis in Guinea. It was doing what CDC does: work with state and local public health departments and partners across borders to find and tackle the problems that can plague individuals, communities, and the world. And then disaster struck.

The following reflects portions of interviews with and reports by past and present CDC leaders and experts.

The Day Everything Changed

Our first thoughts were, "How can we help?"

Within hours of the morning attack, CDC sent a small cadre of public health experts to New York City by private jet.

CDC had previously established a unique FAA-issued priority flight designation that allowed people and material to be flown to New York City despite the closure of airspace over the United States.

There were many unknowns that first day, but the team's primary mission was to support the city health department. CDC expected to help in organizing for mass casualties and conducting immediate biological surveillance for infectious disease illnesses from the possible release of biologic agents. The team arrived before nightfall and integrated with the New York City Department of Health.

In addition, the first emergency mobilization of the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile (NPS) arrived that night in New York City. At the request of the New York City Department of Health, CDC's NPS (now known as the Strategic National Stockpile) delivered a 50-ton package of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to Ground Zero in New York City. The delivery was made within 7 hours of the federal decision to send the supplies. Ventilators and their ancillary supplies, and other critical medical supplies necessary for the treatment of burn and blast injuries were also sent. Along with that, thousands of respirators and other personal protective equipment for response personnel were delivered to New York in the 24 hours after the attack.

Concerned about the possibility that hospitals could be overwhelmed with injured, the NYC health director and CDC leadership agreed that CDC should send up more than a dozen Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers. The additional EIS officers boarded a plane bound for New York within hours. The group included epidemiologists, occupational health specialists, industrial hygienists and other professionals to support the city's response. The EIS officers deployed to emergency departments in sentinel hospitals to identify unusual disease symptoms or outbreak clusters. Their job would be disease and injury surveillance to help identify the types and amount of medical resources needed.

The expectation was that large numbers of people had been injured by the crash and collapse of the buildings. When the sad realization was that hospitals would not be receiving injured survivors because most victims had perished, the CDC team's attention was also directed to occupational health. Eye injuries and respiratory distress ranked high. Soon attention turned to environmental health concerns such as air quality, food and water safety, and rodent control. Days later, more EIS investigators were deployed both to New York City and to Washington, DC to help establish a disease surveillance system.

September 11, 2001 – 2011: What Came After

CDC was challenged by the magnitude of the event and the weight of demand for information, assistance and advice.

Photo: 9/11 memorialWe have had a decade of events to hone our preparedness skills. Before we even completed work in New York, we began to respond to anthrax attacks. Then SARS, monkeypox, Hurricane Katrina, H1N1, Haiti earthquake and cholera outbreak, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Japan earthquake disasters.

CDC has come a long way from responding to 9/11/01 at a few tables in a small conference room. We now have a state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center, which we use regularly to respond to emergencies. A new program, now known as Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, was created to ensure the U.S. government and CDC could respond to large scale health emergencies.

Just like you, we will never forget what we were doing when the planes hit those buildings. We will never forget the images of our fellow citizens falling from windows, or firefighters struggling to control emotion when faced with the enormous, horrible task before them. We will never forget the fear, the sorrow. We work every day in the hopes of lessening the fear and sorrow that occurs in the aftermath of a disaster. We believe preparedness provides hope. We believe people should see happiness and health in their "after."

Learn more about CDC emergency preparedness.

More Information

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  • Page last reviewed: September 9, 2011
  • Page last updated: September 11, 2012
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