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Guiding Helping Hands After 9/11: Alex Amparo Shares His Story

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When Alex Amparo heard the news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center on his way to work, he immediately made a U-turn and headed directly to Florida’s emergency operations center. Today, Amparo serves as the Senior Official Performing the Duties of Deputy Administrator for Resilience at FEMA, but at the time of the 9/11 attacks Amparo was working in emergency management in Florida.

A few days after the attacks, Amparo was deployed to New York to work as the volunteer donations coordinator under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, an agreement which allows states to share resources during disasters. There, Amparo found himself with the enormous task of managing incoming volunteers and donations.

“There were only so many people that could get into that area,” he said. “Yet there were hundreds of thousands of people across the United States wanting to help. Many of them began just sending stuff. Whether it was flashlights and batteries or Hanes underwear and little socks for the dogs that were searching the pile. There were pallets and pallets of Gatorade and Powerade. Many folks were just coming to the area and just dropping them off. It became an issue.”

Both the Shea Stadium and the Javits Center in New York were set up to help with operations, and they were overflowing with donations. Amparo worked with colleagues to set up donation warehouses outside of the city so that they could direct donations to other locations. Over the course of a couple of weeks, he helped set up five donation warehouses across New Jersey, Connecticut and New York. The warehouses spanned 1.3 million square feet. Amparo said UPS and Fedex donated their trucks and drivers to help move items to the warehouses where they could be housed and sorted.

Work consumed his days. “I would get up early in the morning and leave late at night. It was always dark when I left the hotel room. And I did that for several weeks,” he said.

Amparo vividly remembers a day when an urban search and rescue team arrived from Mexico City. They were wearing orange jumper outfits with steel toe boots. It was up to Amparo to assign them to where they were needed, but space to help at the pile was limited.

“You knew these folks knew what they were doing,” Amparo said. “They had patches from around the world where they had gone through earthquakes and provided their expertise, and it was very clear they knew their stuff. But I also knew there was no way there was space for them to work.”

The team had driven for several days to get to New York City from Mexico City, so Amparo was reluctant to just send them home. Their team lead said they would do anything he wanted them to do. So, Amparo sent them to work in a donations warehouse in New Jersey.

Two weeks later, Amparo visited that warehouse, and they were still there. They told him how grateful they were for the opportunity to help.

“This was early in my career and it left an impression on me that has stayed with me throughout my time working in emergency management,” he said. “What I often tell the teams that I’ve led is that you don’t always have to be on the frontline to make a difference. For that team that came with the anticipation of doing search and rescue and ended up sorting through donations and putting them in an orderly way so they could be used- they made a difference. There were hundreds of thousands of people that wanted to be able to help, and they were able to do it.”

Amparo said this reinforces the importance of the work that FEMA does. “Knowing that you don’t have to be on the frontlines just makes it even more real the work that we do here,” he said. “We do have field personnel that are on the frontline but there is a tremendous amount of support that goes to make them successful.”

After 9/11, Amparo returned to Florida and began to build out their emergency response team with a focus on nongovernment organizations.

“I saw how pivotal the nongovernment organizations were to the community and to Manhattan in understanding and knowing the neighborhoods that were being served,” he said. “They knew the people; they knew the culture. In emergency management, when you’re often air dropped into an area, you need to know these sentinels, these folks that know how to reach the folks that are needed. I wanted to make sure we had that capability in Florida.”

Three years later, four hurricanes hit Florida in a 44-day period, and Amparo said those partnerships built in the years after 9/11 paid off. “It absolutely solidified the meaning of the work that I was doing, and it made me double down on the commitment to being able to help people,” he said.

Amparo said this kind of improvement is part of the fabric of emergency management and the focus of FEMA.

“Every major disaster that has happened, whether it’s been 9/11, Katrina, the Florida four, Sandy, Harvey, Maria, they’ve all found a way to make the agency better,” he said.  “How did we do and how do we do better next time, we always ask those questionsI think that has led to a stronger agency- to the stronger agency that we have today.”