Shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax exposures, centers throughout the United States were set up to prepare for and make our nation more resilient. In 2003, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP), Columbia University, was founded to provide an academically based, interdisciplinary center focused on the capacity to prevent, respond to, and recover from disasters.
By NCDP Founding Director, Senior Advisor, Dr. Irwin Redlener
I suppose most of us were in some kind of state of shock in the days following the attacks of 9/11, not just about the violence and massive destruction in lower Manhattan. We were also stunned by the sense of extraordinary vulnerability to unknown forces that had also hit the Pentagon and had likely targeted the nation’s Capital.
We felt naked and unprepared in the face of terrorism at a scale never before seen in the U.S. What’s next? And when? Could this have been prevented? What if the terrorists had deployed bio-weapons, chemicals, or nukes? Could they still be planning existential attacks somewhere? So many questions…
In September 2001, I was president of the new Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, and that was my main priority, along with the Children’s Health Fund. But, in the aftermath of the attack, many of us felt this sense of dread. Deep, chilling dread.
New York, the United States, and, indeed, the world was totally unprepared. And not just for massive terrorism – but we were really not ready for major natural disasters, pandemics, and whatever existential threats might be in our future. But I was hopeful that, like me, many people, government agencies, and emergency responders would absorb the enormity of the 9/11 wake-up call. And do something to make our nation and the world less vulnerable.
Less than a week after the attack, my old pal Dr. Alan Rosenfield, the late dean of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and I attended a briefing by representatives from various federal and state agencies. More than 100 people from New York City were among the audience in a large conference room at the Greater New York Hospital Association. We were listening hard to a series of officials talk about what they knew and what we might expect going forward. Short answer: nobody knew much of anything at all. Not exactly comforting.
I asked a question of the panel. What if terrorists had attacked a facility that had a couple of hundred children instead of the thousands of poor souls working in the World Trade Center offices? What did we know about managing a mass casualty event involving children? The panelists looked at each other. Actually, “not much,” said the panel chair.
That very same day, I reached out to colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and we set up the AAP’s Task Force on Terrorism by the following week. At the same time, I created the nation’s first pediatric disaster program at my Children’s Hospital.
Two years later, Dean Rosenfield called and asked if I would come to Columbia and set up a disaster preparedness center at the University. I said something like, “Hell, yes!” Only a few had existed in the U.S., and we were the first in the aftermath of 9/11.
I told Alan that I wanted to create an academic think tank on the broad subjects of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. But we would focus on action and advocacy. We would do things differently and not necessarily consistent with typical academic culture or pace. We were determined to change how disasters were prevented and managed in America. And we intended to move fast – to the shock of many of our academic colleagues.
So, we were in business when the first SARS epidemic unfolded. And by the time of the massive disaster – and response failures – the world saw around Hurricane Katrina, we were totally engaged. And, we had created a great working partnership with the Children’s Health Fund by the time we rolled into New Orleans with three mobile medical units and began working with the Louisiana Department of Health. This was three days after Katrina overwhelmed the fragile dams supposed to protect the city – but they had failed miserably.
NCDP did years of critical research following the impact of the mega-disaster, around which we published groundbreaking research about its impact on children. This was in addition to the medical care the partnership provided to thousands of Hurricane victims.
I am deeply proud of NCDP’s many accomplishments since it first began at the Mailman School and in the past ten years as a highly productive member of the Earth Institute and now the Columbia Climate School.
At the end of the day, let me be clear that the many accomplishments of NCDP would have been impossible without the extraordinary commitment and critical work of NCDP’s amazing staff. Twenty years of smart, dedicated research and support staff, now under the terrific leadership of Jeff Schlegelmilch, is something to recognize and celebrate.