Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11: Where we have been and where we are headed in disaster management

September 10, 2021

On each anniversary of the tragedy which struck humanity on 9/11/01, we take a moment to reflect on those lives that were lost, families forever changed, and the strength, heroism, and resilience seen in America. It is also a time for us, particularly in the disaster preparedness community, to reflect on what has changed since 9/11 and what has not.

The state of preparedness in the United States is evolving. The COVID-19 pandemic presented us with an unprecedented merger of international and domestic policy, priorities, and politics in many ways foreshadowed by the Ebola crisis of 2014. The outcomes of this complex comingling is often confusing with mixed results on the value of investments and advancements in our readiness stature since 9/11 with a new level of politicization across federal, state, and local response efforts.

Further, as we look at the challenges we continue to face with wildfires, the recent damage from Hurricane Ida, the long-term recoveries form Hurricanes Maria, Sandy and even Katrina, to name a few, it is easy to succumb to exhaustion. This exhaustion is manifest as compassion fatigue, physical fatigue, and a new type of chronic emotional and mental fatigue resulting from the intermingling and overlap of a global pandemic in our homes and in our missions. Today is yet another day to pay homage to the first responder and healthcare worker communities with the dedication and willingness to serve. Indeed, with the challenges in front of us, driven by climate change, and the cascading and compounding impacts across civil society one can quickly lose hope.

But despite the challenges we face, we are making strides. The field of emergency management and disaster research today would be unrecognizable 20 years ago. The growth of professionals, scholars, leaders, and whole community posturing brings a more holistic lens to the understanding and response to disasters. With greater access to technology, the democratization of data and information, engagement of the private sector, and power of community groups and mutual aid networks, our communal effort reaches deep into society. Institutions like the newly minted Columbia Climate School are examples of the tangible investments being in recognition of this interconnectedness and value of a greater collective effort rooted in science. But we can do more. The shock and awe of black swan events is now becoming normalized, but it cannot make us numb to the growing challenge of an urgent need for enhanced planning and large-scale mitigation efforts required to ensure the safety and security of the coming generations.

The inequities that have been consciously and unconsciously woven into our societal structure are also increasingly at the forefront of discussions across the many sectors including emergency management and public health, largely driven by social and climate justice movements. Unravelling and repairing this societal blight will not be easy, but there is momentum. We must continue to shine the light on these vulnerabilities and highlight the disproportionate impact felt by many, particularly during a disaster. But we are still far from where we should be in addressing systemic racism, and the disproportionate impacts of disasters on communities of color. But these issues are now front and center, and no longer relegated to a footnote in our disaster framing.

In summary, we should not discount the progress that has been made over the last twenty years, and find some comfort that many of the lessons taught on that tragic day were in fact learned. But we also need to acknowledge that there have been missteps, lessons unlearned, and that the challenges we face in front of us will require us to continue to find new collaborations and compassion across our communities, and to carry forward the imprint that this tragedy has left on our society and ourselves towards a more just and resilient future for everyone.