Joette Storm was on the treadmill the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when she heard the news. That morning and the ones that followed would be a test to her years of experience.
Storm is the community relations manager for the Federal Aviation Administration. Her first reaction was to call the operation center and receive the latest information. From there she went immediately into meetings; for days after she handled the phones and searched for answers. “The last ten days I've been pretty much on autopilot,” Storm says.
Storm was the guest speaker at the Public Relations Student Society of America club meeting last week. She came to speak with the University of Alaska Anchorage Journalism and Public Communications students about handling public relations in a time of crisis.
“You have to have a plan, you really want to work on auto-pilot and have as much in place as possible,” Storm says.
The morning the Twin Towers came crashing down on the streets of lower Manhattan, Storm's past training and experience took over. She was in the office as soon as possible.
“We immediately began having meetings to determine how the region would respond and mostly to find out what headquarters had determined,” says Storm.
Something had gone wrong and planes were grounded.
It was the FAA's task to inform the pilots to land as quickly as possible. It was about 11 a.m. Eastern Time, and there were between 4,000 and 5,000 planes in the air that were on radar, says Storm.
“We don't have radar in much of the state, little planes that fly under general FAA rules typically are not equipped,” says Storm.
The task of the FAA in Anchorage was complicated. The states vast rural area and isolated people created an unusual situation. Flights were diverted and there was confusion.
“We had a slightly different challenge than many other places in the country,” said Storm. “There was somewhere near 700 people who were in remote locations.”
Besides having to prepare press releases, Storm estimates that she handled between 160 and 200 phone calls in one day. These difficult situations required her to take uncommon measures as a public relations professional.
“In this particular situation where national security is at stake there are going to be many things we cannot talk about,” says Storm.
With safety precautions throughout the nation in flux, some people living in the bush had been out of contact with friends and family for several days. They were escorted back out by an F-15 Storm said.
Alaska was permitted emergency flights after the closure, but on a case-by-case basis. In the first two days there was between 80 and 100 flights.
After just a couple of days, Alaska was given permission resume flying.
“We actually had those permissions before they had them any where else in the country, but they could only fly in Alaska,” says Storm.
The days after the crisis were just as full, with telephones ringing and questions needing answers. Storm says planning is the very important in dealing with a disaster as a public relations person.
“It's critical to know how to respond,” Storm says.
“When there is a crisis we would hope that whatever organization you work for, that public affairs is right at the table with the decision-makers,” says Storm.