Personal Reflections on 9/11

Note: I was appointed to the Bush Administration in 2001 as the chief information officer (CIO) for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and, subsequently, I served with the Homeland Security Transition Planning Office, the White House team that laid the groundwork for the launch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where I served briefly as a senior adviser to the DHS CIO. I was a leader and active participant in the initiation of our nation's federal homeland security infrastructure, and it was all due to the timing of my arrival in Washington during the summer prior to the largest enemy attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. This story is excerpted from my book SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch.

I started work on June 4, 2001, exactly two weeks after my interview and as Director Allbaugh had requested. I was the chief information officer (CIO) in waiting for FEMA.

The “in waiting” part was because my predecessor was still in place, a luxury for me because I had the benefit of his knowledge and experience for the next four months. In the meantime, I was made the deputy CIO even though the person occupying that chair had yet to retire. He graciously stepped aside and also offered his help toward a smooth transition. I looked forward to easing into my new role gradually and quietly.

My expectations were dramatically altered on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in a hotel room in Big Sky, Montana, having arrived at the ski resort the night before to be introduced that morning to the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) as FEMA’s new CIO. While I was getting ready, I turned on the television and flipped to CNN, my channel of choice when I travel.

The commentators suddenly broke away to show one of the towers of New York City’s World Trade Center with a huge gash in its side, black smoke billowing from it. The initial reports suggested a Cessna or other light plane might have inadvertently strayed into restricted airspace and slammed into the building. I recall one of the experts they consulted by phone, a former National Transportation Safety Board official, declaring ominously that, and I’m paraphrasing, “This was no accident. The airspace is restricted for a mile around the Twin Towers.”

Right at that moment, a huge fireball erupted from the other tower and I remember jumping up from the bed and running as fast as I could to get to the ballroom where the NEMA conference was being held. Director Allbaugh, his press secretary, and a host of others were rushing to their cars to get to the airport at nearby Bozeman. Someone yelled on the way out the door that a military transport would be sent to pick up the rest of us.

In the meantime, I got to work trying to get us connected to the Internet so we could do our jobs from the hotel ballroom, which was instantly transformed from a meeting place into a command center. The hotel staff had no networking equipment I could use, so I plugged a laptop into the nearest phone wall jack, grabbed an Internet connection and didn’t let it go for the rest of the day.

That turned out to be a wise move, since the telephone lines were saturated and we weren’t able to call into Washington, DC. As far as communications were concerned, I was the only conduit back to FEMA. Our public affairs people were bringing me press releases to send out and others were handing me items of importance to communicate back to headquarters. I also contacted state officials with the Montana National Guard to make arrangements for a secure phone system to be delivered to us.

I remember sitting at a table helping people get their messages out while the events of the day as reported by CNN were being projected onto a large screen or wall near where I sat. We were hearing rumors that the Capitol or the White House had been hit, that a car bomb had gone off in the State Department parking lot, and that Washington was in total gridlock. While only the last report was true, many of us were frightened for our families and friends back home. All of us watched in stunned silence the large projected image as the Twin Towers collapsed. Many wept.

A fellow FEMA associate director, a former Marine, remarked that what we were seeing was the beginning of a war and I wondered how many other targets there were across the country. Our hotel was on total lockdown with local law enforcement surrounding our building and preventing movement between buildings on the resort campus.

I prayed that no one I knew from my days in the military or as a defense contractor was in the section of the Pentagon that had been hit by American Airlines Flight 77. My family was 45 miles south of the Capitol, so I presumed they were safe. All we could do was wait for the military transport that was supposed to come and get us.

Except it never came. The nation’s airspace had been closed down and we were resigned to being where we were for a while. The days that followed were spent monitoring news reports and communicating with staff back at FEMA, checking in on family members and assuring other family and friends that I wasn’t in Washington, DC and was, in fact, okay.

I called my pastor from our church in Tampa and he asked to do an interview with me about the horrific events of the past few days so that he could share it with the congregation. I agreed and during the interview I reminded whoever would be listening that God was in control—even though it didn’t seem that way. God especially cared for the nearly 3,000 people murdered by terrorists, and the family and friends they left behind. I prayed a lot.

Some people were getting the ski resort equivalent of cabin fever and couldn’t wait for the airspace to reopen, so they rented a car and drove back to Washington, DC. I declined, confident that the airspace would soon be reopened and I would be home before they would.

My prediction proved to be correct and I didn’t have to endure days on the road to get home. It was while preparing to board the flight at the Bozeman airport that I realized life would never be the same again. The airport screeners were opening up and checking all luggage, screening each passenger for possible weapons, and the long line of people didn’t seem to mind. Everyone was quiet and serious while they waited. It was a grim but determined people I saw that day.

The air traffic control system was chaotic that day after four days without flights, and our flight was diverted to Minneapolis, then Pittsburgh. I finally arrived at Baltimore-Washington International early Saturday morning and had a quiet drive home. My wife was still up when I got home and we were glad to be in each other’s arms again. I could sense the concern inside her and was again reminded of how much had changed. Even though it was around 2 AM when I got home, I got some rest, cleaned up and drove into Washington, DC that afternoon to get right back to work.

The weeks that followed were filled with long hours and a lot of contingency planning since we thought another attack was imminent. I had prayed for God to enlarge my territory, and my prayers had been answered, although not in the way I expected. God never works in the way we hope or expect—that’s why He’s God and we’re not.

I went from being just another federal senior executive to a key player in the government’s fight against terrorism. FEMA was at the epicenter of emergency management for natural disasters, but now we added terrorism to the mix and elevated it to the top priority. Information was critical to our emergency management and other national security missions, so I found myself attending numerous White House task force meetings, briefing members of Congress during testimony on Capitol Hill, interacting with other federal agencies and IT companies on warning systems and continuity of operations after a terrorist attack, and so much more.

I was attending a lot of conferences and public events since Director Allbaugh, who was more of a doer than a talker, shunned them and sent me in his place instead. He told me once, as we were walking together to Capitol Hill to testify on an emergency management bill under consideration in the Senate, “I’m going to make you a star.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not because his expression almost never changed, but I knew he liked and trusted me, and he supported every one of my initiatives to make FEMA better. My profile in the Washington, DC technology community, and the fledgling homeland security infrastructure that sprung up after 9/11, was extremely high. Consequently, a local technology magazine called me “one of the most visible CIOs in Washington.”