Soon after 9/11, a hierarchy of victimization arose. First, there were the casualties and their families. Second were those seriously injured in the attack (a relatively small group due to the extreme nature of the disaster). Third were the displaced residents, those of us who had to run for our lives with our families. These levels were officially designated as a means of directing support agencies. But the press also followed this hierarchy, seeking out the most victimized for articles.
My access to the press since 9/11 is due to the proximity of my home to the WTC. As residents closest to the site, we had the highest credentials on the victimization scale. This access gave us the power to make public demands. I resented this power in others when it furthered agendas that I opposed. But of course I used my own access to the media to further causes I supported.
This morning, I awoke feeling very nervous. I had to plan for the 10 a.m. press conference with Jerrold Nadler, our U.S. Congressman. He has consistently pushed the cause of environmental cleanup of downtown by the EPA. With regard to the cleanup, the EPA has demonstrated a mixed agenda at best. Our building suffered the worst contamination and was among the last to be cleaned up. The EPA sponsored and executed our cleaning, gave use the “all clear,” and said we could move back in. We hired independent environmental specialists (Ambient Group) to review the results. Using more refined tests, Ambient Group found evidence of small asbestos particles under our floors and in visible dust around the building. They recommended that the floors be taken up so that the dust underneath could be removed; and they recommended this be done in a controlled environment. The EPA says that according to their official tests, there is no asbestos, but those “official” tests, which are older, don’t look for very small particles. (In the WTC disaster, everything was pulverized to a fine powder, which makes the refined tests necessary.) Simply stated, we disagree with the EPA’s evaluation of our building and are planning another round of cleaning to be paid for with our insurance proceeds.
According to some experts, even the smallest amounts of asbestos can cause a condition called asbestosis (which can lead to short-term damage, like asthma, and long-term damage, like lung cancer). Our feeling as parents is that we have to approach each of these issues conservatively. Essentially, testing should identify asbestos particles of all sizes and amounts. We should not bear the risk of even small exposure. If it wasn’t there before 9/11, it shouldn’t be left for us now. There is also the issue of other contaminants, such as silica and lead.
I should have been better prepared for the press conference. I reworked the speech briefly in the morning and printed a copy to review before the conference. But I’d written an article instead of a speech. Speeches succeed better with less logic and more expression. The media wants sound bites that convey victimization and self-righteous indignation. I am tired of being a victim, and I don’t want to be self-righteous. But I do want the EPA to change its direction. I want FEMA to understand that they have prematurely declared their responsibilities here concluded. They declared victory and left town before they accomplished their objectives. The press is the only way to reach these agencies. I am forced to tap emotions that I want most desperately to suppress.
The press conference goes well. A few of our neighbors attend. We stand in front of rows of the press, and I deliver my statement. I explain the impact of this situation on the residents of our building and describe the failures of the EPA. I’m not as smooth as I’d like, but at least our message has been delivered. Nadler’s staff has environmental experts respond to the details. After an hour of brief interviews, I run off to my next appointment, anxious to see where this will lead.
The rest of the day is punctuated by shuffling of children from one activity to another. It’s the urban version of being a soccer parent. I take James, our youngest child, to speech therapy with a new therapist at NYU at 11:30. At 2, I will take him for his first afternoon at the local day care. At 3, I distribute literature in support of a candidate in a local election. At 3:30 I pick up Hannah up from school. At 4, I meet with reporters at our building. At 4:30, I run around the corner to vote for our city councilperson. At 5, we have a condo board meeting.
Later, I begin to hear of the ramifications the press conference. The independent contractor who performed the EPA-sponsored cleaning calls our building’s reconstruction manager to see if he should be worried. I see an article with responses from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection stating their position on the controversy; put simply, they fall in line with the EPA standards and testing methods. I know that some people at the DEP who really tried to help us have been caught in the crossfire. News agencies call for follow-up questions and clarifications. One cameraman refuses to stay in our building or neighborhood because of concerns about environmental safety.
At the end of the day, a representative of the WTC site asks our architect if we will complete our building construction and clean-up in time for the 9/11 ceremonies. Evidently, across the street from a 16-acre disaster zone and construction site, we are unsightly. It’s all part of the hierarchy of victimization.