Roker didn’t know that just 45 minutes later every thought he had of that morning would be replaced by unthinkable tragedy. No one could’ve expected it. In fact, before the day it happened, it was something that most had only seen in blockbuster films. The United States was under attack. And in the hours, days, and weeks following that horrific morning of terror, the whole world watched as Americans tried to make sense of the tragedy and find ways to cope.
It wasn’t that the U.S. hadn’t experienced cataclysm before. Just six years earlier domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in a truck bombing at a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklah. In 1999, two trenchcoat-clad teens shot 33 people, killing 13 at their high school in Columbine, Colo. They were events that stunned the nation and galvanized people to act in support of those who were impacted.
But the sheer magnitude and scope of September 11th made it different. As a result, survivors, first responders, and victims’ families received a more overwhelming response from both the public and the government than anyone had seen before.
“The response [to September 11th] was different in that society was somewhat more aware of PTSD in 2001 than in 1995 or even 1999,” psychologist Dr. Jim Jackson from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine told The Culture Trip. “You could say that in some respects the tragedies of Oklahoma City and Columbine primed the collective national psyche a bit, though obviously no one was emotionally prepared for the impact and aftermath of 9/11.”
The health effects of 9/11 were numerous and widespread. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), respiratory diseases, cancer, depression, anxiety — they were conditions that affected people on the ground that day, but also those watching the events unfold on television 1,000 miles away in Florida, and the emergency workers who went to the scene to search for survivors and help with the clean up, and the loved ones of the thousands of people who perished.
America was left with a physical and emotional mess that needed to be cleaned up. But who would do it, and how?
Numerous charitable organizations were established with the single, express purpose of helping those affected by the attacks. For example, Families of September 11 was founded in October 2001, mere weeks after the tragedy, “to support families and children by offering updated information on issues of interest, access to resources, relevant articles, and advocacy to raise awareness about the effects of terrorism and public trauma.” The charities were helpful, especially for emotional support, but economically and healthcare-wise, the U.S. government faced an unprecedented task.
In December 2001, the federal government created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). The VCF processed claims from relatives of victims of the attacks to provide financial support between 2001 and 2004. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (Zadroga Act) was signed into law by Pres. Barack Obama in 2011 and extended on December 18, 2015. The legislation reopened and extended the fund through December 2020 for victims who died from dust exposure complications years after the actual attacks. The Zadroga Act also created the World Trade Center Health Program, which will provide health care services and medical monitoring through the year 2090 for first responders and survivors who were in the area on the day of the attacks.
The September 11th attacks were unprecedented in the history of the United States. The public and government response to the events of that day set the bar for what survivors of later tragedies, like Hurricane Katrina and several mass shootings, would expect in terms of aid. Support is important in the hours after a tragic event, but consistent medical monitoring in the months and years thereafter, especially as it relates to PTSD, becomes crucial.
“There is always an impulse to do ‘something’ after a tragedy, and yet paradoxically this may have the effect of derailing what could be a very normal and appropriate grieving process,” said Dr. Jackson. “While study after study shows that the impact of very public tragedies is large and even profound, a small percentage of people exposed to such tragedies will go on to develop PTSD and anxiety disorders – sorting out who these people are and who they are not is a challenge that often reveals itself over time.”