Social Work Research on Disasters in the Aftermath of the September 11 Tragedy: Reflections from New York City. (Note on Research Methodology)

By Padgett, Deborah K. | Social Work Research, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Social Work Research on Disasters in the Aftermath of the September 11 Tragedy: Reflections from New York City. (Note on Research Methodology)


Padgett, Deborah K., Social Work Research


"Commentators emphasize how our world changed on 9/11. Yet it's really our knowledge of the world, our sense of the world, not the world itself that changed on that tragic day."

--Nancy Hooyman

Whether the rest of the world changed on September 11, 2001, is certainly arguable, but there is no doubt that social work research in New York City (NYC) and beyond changed. It is difficult to imagine otherwise given the enormity of events--the first large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil resulting in the loss of thousands of lives in NYC, at the Pentagon, and in a plane crash in Pennsylvania. Shortly after September 11, anthrax poisoning through the U.S. mail left most Americans--especially those living on the East Coast--feeling serially vulnerable.

Research from a variety of disciplines provides us with a framework for understanding and reacting to such a disaster. Since September 11, we have turned to experts on the Islamic world to understand the roots of grievances against the West (Reich, 1990), and we impatiently await medical and public health findings on how to respond to bioterrorism. And when it comes to the psychosocial needs of disaster survivors, the role of social work research--and the social and behavioral sciences in general--is critical. This article has three interrelated goals: (1) to briefly portray the impact of the September 11 disaster on social work research in NYC and summarize what lessons can be learned from the experience; (2) to describe what is known from earlier research on community disasters and how this knowledge was used in the organizational response to the September 11 disaster; and (3) to offer suggestions for future research informed by the cumulative evidence from disaster research and the experience of September 11. The first goal addresses the how--the logistical aspects--of conducting research and the second and third goals address what is known and what needs to be known.

This report, coming from close to Ground Zero, cannot fully represent the diverse thoughts and experiences of social work researchers in NYC (much less those residing in other parts of the country or the world). I hope it will stimulate further discussion about what types of interventions and support are best suited to the needs that inevitably arise after a disaster and how research is vital to our understanding of these needs and their amelioration. Although many of the topics discussed here predate September 11, the scope of its tragic impact has compelled many in the helping professions to rethink their research agendas with greater urgency. Social work--a profession that was vitally involved in responding to the devastating crisis of September 11--is no exception.

A BRIEF PORTRAIT OF THE IMPACT OF THE SEPTEMBER 11 DISASTER ON SOCIAL WORK RESEARCH: THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK CITY

The terrifying but riveting spectacle unfolded on the world's television screens--the Twin Towers collapsing as we watched, knowing that thousands were perishing before our eyes. For New Yorkers--especially those in downtown Manhattan and western Brooklyn--the horror took place in real time and with immediate consequences. Telephone service was disrupted for days or weeks and subways and mass transit ground to a halt, forcing thousands of commuters to trek for miles across bridges closed to all traffic. In the days after September 11, Manhattan below 14th Street looked like a post-nuclear attack scenario--empty streets populated by dazed pedestrians wandering, sirens wailing, and acrid smoke drifting. Even after the "frozen zones" were lifted, feelings of vulnerability and fear of new attacks reduced many of us to a subsistence level of activity with one noteworthy exception: a powerful urge to help others who were more seriously affected.

For schools of social work, this meant canceling classes and helping students whose field placements were scheduled to begin the week of September 11. …

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