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Disaster management: UD researchers chronicle cooperation during 9/11 water evacuation

Evan Krape
University of Delaware
Tricia Wachtendorf and James Kendra from UD's Disaster Research Center.

Two University of Delaware professors have chronicled a lesser-known part of the response to the September 11th attack in New York 15 years ago.

In their book, American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11, James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf from UD’s Disaster Research Center approach a waterborne evacuation as collaboration between people using ordinary skills and regular capacities to function in extraordinary environments.

“We also see in this event and many others, that in managing a disaster —much of it involves just old-fashioned kinds of activities, whether you’re unloading supplies, stacking boxes, making food,” Kendra said. “Even though the disaster itself is a huge event, a lot of what’s involved is smaller kinds of activities that anybody can do.”

They refer to this as breaking up a disaster into “bite-size chunks,” Kendra said.

Credit University of Delaware
American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11

“The idea isn’t necessarily to try to understand the disaster entirely but what people can do in their local circumstances that allows them to be helpful,” he said.

It all started just days after 9-11; Kendra and Wachtendorf went to New York City to examine the overall response to the event. They spent two months in an emergency operation center looking at the improvisation and coordination between agencies to gain a better understanding.

In particular, they became captivated by a little-known boat evacuation from the New York Harbor; they received funding from UD and the National Science Foundation to examine how people improvised and cooperated in fleeing Ground Zero and lower Manhattan by water.

“This is one that people didn’t know that much about outside of that harbor community,” Wachtendorf said. “Over time there’s been a small documentary called ‘Boatlift’, a few maritime articles, but time and time again we speak to people and they’ve never heard of what happened at the water’s edge as opposed to what was going on in the towers and some of the surrounding area.”

Wachtendorf, who is also a professor in the department of sociology and criminal justice, added the scale and success of the water evacuation has a much broader implication regarding the importance of improvisation and cooperation in managing disasters.  

“This is a very heartening idea, the fact that we all have a role to play, that we can all find a space within that, and certainly we have skills that can find a place and a use at a particular time,” she said. “I think just being mindful of when those skills are helpful and when others have the skills to really participate and make that response work. Sometimes it’s simply allowing that space to occur.”

Kendra, a professor in the school of public policy and administration, said there is a lot of emphasis about command and control in emergency management. But what they saw during the 9-11 boat evacuation was many different activities and people helping out without prior planning.

“It could be buses that were being used in Weehawken, for example, to transport evacuees, it could be a supply loading and unloading operation in lower Manhattan," Kendra said. "There were a lot of different activities that took place all at the same time.”

Kendra said part of the art of disaster management is being able to work in loosely structured and loosely organized systems. The mariners, he said, had a strong sense of community and that level of prior acquaintance figured strongly in their ability to organize themselves.

But the sense of community from the mariners serves as an example that there can sometimes be a misunderstanding during disasters that ordinary people believe they have nothing to contribute, Wachtendorf said.

“One of the things that was very evident in such a large scale way with the boat evacuation was that people have more capacity than we sometimes give them credit for,” Wachtendorf said. “There are many things we do whether we’re mariners, whether we’re farmers, whether we’re healthcare providers, that we can play a role in disasters and sometimes see that niche for ourselves that others may not see because they don’t have that same background.”

Kendra and Wachtendorf’s book derives its title from what their interview subjects compared the scale of the evacuation to, though the event itself was actually unnamed.  American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11 was published earlier this summer.