One Year Later Remembering September 11
An exclusive conversation with Janet Clements, Class of 1980, on her Communications role for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management
Dennis Sercombe, Editor
For most Americans, including Janet Clements '80, September 11, 2001 began like any other autumn day. Summer was over. The kids were back in school. And a crystal clear morning hinted at the promise of fall.
But unlike most of us, the tragic events of 9/11 would soon present Janet with the challenge of her career. As director of public affairs for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Janet was watching the story unfold on CNN when the third plane hit the Pentagon. All of a sudden, terror had struck home right in Virginia's front yard.
For the next two weeks, Janet would establish and manage a Joint Information Center in northern Virginia where she and her staff would coordinate the communications response to the Pentagon attack. At one time, there were over 100 media companies covering the attack a list that sounds like a "Who's Who" of journalism: CNN, C-Span, Reuters, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, Fox News from small affiliates to large media conglomerates, from weekly papers to the New York Times. And they all wanted the same thing: accurate, up-to-the minute news, photos, video, and soundbites about the Pentagon attack.
Janet Clements is a true example of the Longwood "citizen-leader." Here, in her own words, are her reflections on that autumn day that we will always remember.
How did you first learn about the World Trade Center attack and what were your first thoughts?
I was in my office and my pager went off. The message from our Emergency Operations Center read: An airplane has crashed into the World Trade Center CNN carrying it live. I immediately turned on the television in my office to see smoke billowing from one of the World Trade Center towers. Shortly thereafter, the second plane crashed into the other tower. At that point I realized this wasn't an accident. My agency has been planning, preparing and exercising for a terrorist event for over six years, so when the third plane hit the Pentagon, I knew this was now a Virginia incident and that I would be involved. There's no way you could see the live footage and not have an emotional reaction. Mine was a sinking feeling in my stomach driven by the shock and horror of the situation. When the first media call came in, I had to push aside as much of that emotion as I could in order to do my job communicate to the public on the Pentagon attack through state, national and international media.
Once it was clear that America was under attack, what were your first actions regarding emergency management in Virginia?
I had to make contact with the Governor's Press Office, assemble my team of public affairs officers and go to our Emergency Operations Center to activate a Joint Information Center. Our EOC is about four miles from the VDEM administrative headquarters. The EOC is an underground facility located behind State Police Headquarters near the Richmond and Chesterfield County border. There were security checkpoints to get into the State Police property and at that time we didn't know when or where the next attack would occur. My staff and I began working with the Governor's Office to issue news releases regarding the State of Emergency and the status of the Pentagon response. We coordinated all the media responses from state agencies. During an emergency, it's crucial that information be coordinated and consistent so that we don't add to the rumors and confusion a crisis brings. The entire Joint Information Center concept is designed to facilitate "speaking with one voice."
The attack soon came closer to home with the Pentagon attack. Tell us about how you were sent to the Pentagon and what you did upon arrival.
The attack occurred on a Tuesday and I worked 12-14 hour days on Tuesday and Wednesday at the state EOC. On Thursday morning, I reported to the Pentagon actually to Fort Myers, which is where the Joint Operations Center was located. That center included representatives from the FBI, the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Arlington County officials and numerous other local, state and federal representatives. My job there was to help coordinate the flow of information to the public about the attack and recovery efforts. The media served as one of the primary means of getting that information out and calls continued from local, national and international media.
What were your primary responsibilities at the Pentagon site?
My job was to help establish a Joint Information Center so that all the federal, state and local agencies involved could provide consistent information to the public. In any crisis, rumors and misinformation can spread rapidly, so I worked with other media relations representatives to make sure we were all putting out coordinated and consistent information. I was also serving as the primary spokesperson for state government. I worked closely with the Governor's Office to keep them informed on what was happening on the scene.
Give us a brief "situation report" on what you found when you arrived at the Pentagon.
I went to the Pentagon site that Thursday and it was utterly shocking to see the damage the airplane inflicted on a building that looked so rock solid. In less than an hour after impact, the building floors above the crash entry site pancaked down at an angle. The front wall was completely removed and you could see inside offices. One of the things I'll never forget is the computer monitor sitting on a desk right next to the building collapse. I found myself wondering what happened to that person and what he or she must have felt and thought when that airplane came crashing into the building.
As the on-site communications coordinator, what were the major problems that you faced?
There were so many agencies and organizations involved in the response, it was difficult to put the Joint Information Center concept in place. We had practiced this in exercises, but the real event was different. The media were gathered at a Citgo gas station close to the Pentagon. Fort Myers was about a mile and a half away and it was off limits to the media. So having the JIC there just wasn't working. The Department of Defense didn't want to brief media at the Citgo station because they had a distinct need to show the country and the world that the Pentagon had not been destroyed. So they conducted all their briefings in the Pentagon briefing room. We all agreed that made perfect sense, so instead of focusing on a literal JIC where everyone was located together, we took the virtual JIC approach and used telephones and computers to coordinate. It worked well. We were able to rapidly disseminate accurate and consistent information and the media seemed happy with the arrangement. Arlington County, in particular, did a masterful job of communicating about the fire, police and rescue response to the Pentagon site.
The Virginia Department of Emergency Management prepares for a wide range of disasters and emergencies. Had you ever rehearsed or discussed anything of this magnitude or methodology?
Yes, we constantly are exercising and preparing for worst-case scenarios. That's just the nature of my agency. We're either responding to emergencies and disasters or planning, preparing and exercising for those that might occur in the future. Terrorism has been on our radar screen since the early 1990s and we have been preparing for it. But I will say that of all the things we'd trained for, airplanes loaded with full tanks of jet fuel crashing into office buildings was not in any of our exercise scenarios.
Looking back over the whole September 11 event and aftermath, is there anything that you would have done differently in regard to your response plan?
Actually our plan worked well. For Virginia it was an isolated location where all the victims were Pentagon workers, contractors, visitors or those on the airplane.
The World Trade Center attack was much more complex for many reasons. What we've done since 9/11 is to revamp our plans and train a wider group of state and local government representatives on media relations and the Joint Information Center concept. We know that the next terrorist incident could take the form of a biological, chemical or even a nuclear attack, and those types of incidents would require many more people trained to communicate with the public.
How has your job changed as a result of 9/11?
I've spent a good deal of time over the past year focusing on terrorism. I've been looking at what Virginia needs to do to prepare our citizens and to provide effective emergency public information during future incidents. I have been involved in Governor Warner's and former Governor Gilmore's terrorism panels and am a member of Virginia's Domestic Preparedness Working Group. At the same time, we've had two major floods in Southwest Virginia and are facing drought conditions throughout the state. So I have to keep that balance between the natural disasters that continue to plague our state with the looming threat of terrorism.
Virginia is a primary tourist destination. What can you tell potential visitors that might ease some of their anxiety about travel in these turbulent times?
Security has certainly been tightened since 9/11, so it will be much harder for terrorists to find that chink in our armor. Virginia also has one of the best response systems in the nation, so if terrorists do strike again, people in this state should know that we have the best of the best ready to deal with any situation.
What can an individual do when an emergency situation or natural disaster strikes close to home?
Actually, there are a number of things people can do to prepare themselves and their families for terrorism or natural disasters. Having a disaster supplies kit is an important action, because you may be on your own for three to five days without outside assistance. You need non-perishable foods, water (a gallon per person per day), battery powered radio, flashlights with extra batteries, first aid kit, an extra supply of your prescription medications and other personal hygiene items. There are a number of other actions people can take such as understanding in-place sheltering and how to safely evacuate. For more specific information, people should turn to Virginia's emergency Web site: www.vaemergency.com. That site is managed by my office and includes extensive information on terrorism and disaster preparedness.
September 11, 2001 has been compared to December 7, 1941. Do you think the history books will agree?
Most definitely. In fact, I think because of the extensive television coverage of the World Trade Center towers being hit and then collapsing and of the Pentagon site, 9/11 may have more lasting effects in people's memories. As horrible as Pearl Harbor was, people across the country and the world weren't watching it live on CNN. Sept. 11 will be forever etched in people's memories.