9/11 at FEMA: Information on demand

Marc Wolfson recalls how quickly the public affairs staff at FEMA kicked into high gear and started posting information on the agency's website.

Marc Wolfson was right in the thick of the panic on Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, he was a public affairs officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and his office at FEMA headquarters was across the Potomac from the smoldering Pentagon.

After the Pentagon had been hit, “I got up and looked out the window,” he said. “I’d been at FEMA for a number of years, so I’d been through a number of disasters, including the Oklahoma City bombing. I looked out the window, and parked right across from FEMA headquarters with its blinkers on was a Ryder rental truck. It didn’t turn out to be anything, but in the moment, it was a flashback to Oklahoma City.”

Like everyone else in the D.C. area, Wolfson had awakened that morning to a beautiful, clear late-summer day. He first learned of the attacks when a colleague came into his office after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Wolfson began watching the news coverage and saw the second plane hit.

“It was after the second plane hit the tower that things kicked into gear,” he said. “As we started getting information in through the operations center, I started posting some basic updates to the FEMA website. You could just feel the tension in the room. It was a continual ramping up through the morning.”

Wolfson had members of his team sit in on the operations center’s meetings, which took place frequently throughout the day. After scrubbing sensitive information, Wolfson or one of his staff members posted the latest updates to the Web.

“I left the office about 8:00 that night,” he said. “By that time, we had instituted a 24-hour schedule. We had some people who had gone home earlier in the day who came back in. We operated that way for at least three or four days. It may have been longer than that.”

It was only after he emerged from the office and the hectic pace of the day that the enormity of the events started to become clear.

“When I left to go home, Washington was a ghost town,” he said. “It was very eerie. It might as well have been the middle of the night. I got on the Metro, and there was nobody in the car. It was a very lonely ride.”

The FEMA website got 2.3 million hits on Sept. 11 and 3.4 million on Sept. 12, he said. A typical day sees fewer than 1 million hits, but the site performed well under the increased demand, he added.

“FEMA was born after the Cold War,” he said. “There was this mentality of having a robust network, having redundancy in communications. We were one of the first agencies to put up a website, to start using e-mail.”

The attacks and their aftermath took a toll on Wolfson, however. He left FEMA in 2002 to take a position at the Health and Human Services Department and is now public affairs director at HHS’ Office of Inspector General.

“I had been with FEMA through the ’90s and worked through literally hundreds of disasters,” he said. “I reached a point where I felt like I needed a change. I’d never been in a job as long as I’d been at FEMA.”

He added that he appreciates the more predictable pace of his current job.

“I’m not on call on the weekends,” he said. “When we’re going to issue a report, I have plenty of lead time. There are no unknowns. I lived with unknowns for so many years [that] it’s nice to have a position where everything is clear.”

Read more of Remembering Sept. 11: Disaster and response.