Despite the intense planning and training that are designed to prepare members of the Disaster Response Network (DRN), none of them could have been ready for the tragedy that struck Sept. 11. Its suddenness and enormity posed a set of unique difficulties for those heading up the response--among them New York State's DRN chair June Feder, PhD.
Feder was stepping out of her office in lower Manhattan when a colleague called to tell her a tower had been hit. She didn't believe it, but then saw smoke billowing from the site. She ran back inside to the television and watched the second plane hit. By the time she realized the magnitude of the disaster, New York City's phone lines were jammed.
"It was madness," said Feder, who faced a major problem: As disaster-response chair, she needed to coordinate the effort with the state psychological association's main office in Albany, but she couldn't reach it. "The main office was getting flooded with calls from people asking who can we call and where can we go, and I couldn't get through," said Feder. She also couldn't reach the main Red Cross office in the city, the local base for activating psychology's DRN. Further complicating her response was Feder's own concern about the safety of friends and loved ones.
"I thought of my own family," she said. "I knew my mother would be worried and I was trying to reach people to let them know I was OK. At the same time, as chair of the network, you have to keep your job in mind. I was trying to figure out how to mobilize and activate the network."
Since the phone lines were busy, Feder headed to the Red Cross office. She encountered a hectic scene: Phones rang nonstop and hundreds of volunteers, including psychologists, showed up to offer help. She set out determining where psychologists' services were most needed, organizing teams of mental health workers and giving instructions. Many waited hours for their assignments.
After the first day--as phone lines began to open up and communications improved--Feder was able to deploy psychologists from all over the country to work with companies, individuals, families and rescue workers affected by the disaster. She sent psychologists to local police departments to support those "doing horrendous jobs like cataloguing body parts and property from the wreckage." And, as part of the state psychological association's DRN program, psychologists offered disaster victims pro bono services for up to three sessions.
Feder was greatly impressed by psychologists' unprecedented local and national response to the disaster.
"The New York State Psychological Association had more than 400 people calling to volunteer their services," she said. "Many local psychologists were willing to drop things almost immediately to be where they might be needed. We've also had psychologists come from all over the state on buses."
Though Feder was deeply gratified by the outpouring of volunteerism and people's willingness to put their own lives on hold, the 11-year DRN veteran--who responded to the TWA crash off Long Island and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing--found dealing with the World Trade Center's destruction the most "daunting, unbelievable experience" of her professional life. And she is not alone: A number of psychologists have themselves sought support. In fact, 30 New York DRN members recently held a grassroots meeting to discuss ways of helping others and themselves handle the trauma of the catastrophe.
"Most of us have never been through anything like this," said Feder. "Every day is a new page--an ongoing process in which psychologists will be needed every step of the way."