This week in North Philly Notes, we sat down with American Dunkirk co-authors James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf to talk about their new book on the boat evacuation from Manhattan that took place on 9/11.
Jim, you are a geographer by training, and Tricia, you are a sociologist. But you both also refer to yourselves as “disaster researchers.” What exactly is disaster research?
As social scientists, we are interested in how people, organizations, and communities think about and behave in disaster situations. How do people experience disaster in different ways? What do we perceive as risky, and why? What helps or hinders coordination, be it in preparing, responding, or recovering from disaster? And then it’s often working with other scientists, be it from engineering, atmospheric, or health science, to solve these problems in a more comprehensive way. Disaster research requires that kind of holistic approach. The Disaster Research Center, where we are fortunate to work, is also well known for quick response research. For over 50 years, its researchers have collected information in the immediate aftermath of disasters, information that often is otherwise forgotten or lost. This has led to critical insights that have improved our understanding of disaster events.
The boat evacuation on 9/11 is a fascinating story. What drew you to looking at this event?
We had seen the power of improvised activities in our documentation of some other emergency response activities in New York City, such as the re-establishment of the Emergency Operations Center after the original at 7 World Trade Center had been destroyed. During that study, we began to hear about the boat evacuation. The fact that approximately 500,000 people could be evacuated by boat so successfully without any direct plan in place was amazing, but it was also an example – on a larger scale – of the kind of improvisations we had seen and continued to see in other disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. And those improvisations extended beyond the boat evacuation, to the bus transport of people once they reached the Jersey shore, to setting up dinner cruise vessels to serve as respite centers for Ground Zero responders, to the retired fireboat John J. Harvey being pulled back into service for fire suppression. We quickly realized there was so much to learn. Plus Jim had been a merchant marine officer, so he was attuned to the aspects of maritime culture: such as the professional obligation to “get the job done” and their capacities for making do with limited equipment. We were grateful for the University of Delaware Research Foundation and National Science Foundation funding to support this extensive work. Over the years there have been a few accounts shared about the boat evacuation, but we still are mostly greeted with surprise when people learn about what transpired along the waterfront that day.
You talked to 100 people involved with various aspects of the boat evacuation and response. What were some of the key lessons you drew from your study?
The boat evacuation is one of many heartening moments throughout an otherwise tragic day, and much of that is grounded in the idea of community. In this case, it was the extended harbor community who were able to envision a role for themselves, who were able to draw on their extensive network within that community, who were open to new ideas that seemed to be working in the moment, and who were able to galvanize the latent resources on their boats, along the shoreline, and across the metropolitan area. But it’s not only the harbor community that can do that. As we’ve said elsewhere, successful disaster response involves ordinary people achieving the extraordinary, solving one problem at a time. What an important insight! Any one of us might not be able to do everything, and there are a lot of things we might not do well, but we can usually do something quite well.
Notable was the number of maritime workers who started out without a plan. They said, “We didn’t know what we were going to do.” But the mariners had a strong ethos of rescue they applied, even if it was a land-based emergency. They had technical and environmental knowledge, and experience working on the fly. But we also learned of a bartender who handed out chips and talked with people queuing up for boats on one of the piers. He saw a need: providing comfort in the form of food and conversation, and it was in his wheelhouse as a bartender to notice the need. We all have something in our wheelhouse.
Before 9/11, and to a much greater degree afterward, public officials and policymakers were emphasizing the need for “command and control.” But large-scale disasters are always characterized by emerging and unplanned activities that are better coordinated than controlled. It’s OK to strive to get a sense of the big picture, but we also have to recognize that no one will have that in the midst of an unfolding disaster. Responses that work involve people starting to put together their part of the picture, alongside other formal and informal responders. It’s a community effort, at its heart.
James Kendra is a Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration and Tricia Wachtendorf is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. They are the Directors of the Disaster Research Center. Visit them online at americandunkirk.com.
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