improvisation and disaster planning

recently tricia wachtendorf * gave a talk in my department about research she did at the world trade center site from sept 13 – dec 2001. she does research on disaster response and risk, and the project she was talking about was interviewing people about the waterborne evacuation of lower manhattan on sept 11. i didn’t even know that this had happened, but immediately after the first plane hit the first tower, the boat captains who happened to be in the harbor started figuring out that they could help by organizing evacuations from battery park. simultaneously and spontaneously, people in lower manhattan started gathering at the piers there, and so a totally improvised, totally unplanned, and totally uncontrolled (in the top-down, bureaucratic sense) evacuation took place. very quickly, the boats stopped returning to manhattan empty and began transporting emergency workers and supplies; they continued that for the next 2-3 weeks. cool, huh?

over the next 6-8 hours, ferry boats, dinner cruise boats, tugs, small private boats, even a decommissioned fire boat all coordinated to evacuate between 300,000 and 1 million (wachtendorf estimates 500,000) people from lower manhattan. they took them to jersey city, atlantic highlands, staten island, places just across the harbor. no one was in charge. there were no emergency evacuation plans. this just all happened, and with a few minor injuries (broken ankles and things like that), and only one unrelated fatality (a captain had a heart attack).

wachtendorf talked about how several things came together here to produce the successful evacuation. first, the apparently common phenomenon of convergence toward a disaster – all these people in the harbor, “boat people”, felt they had to do something to help. she showed an amazing aerial photo of the towers smoking with a swarm of boats going in towards manhattan. second, many of the people had previous military training, especially coast guard (about which more below), so they were used to situations where they had to think fast. perhaps most importantly, they had intimate knowledge of the harbor on several levels – they knew the physical layout (did you know ferry captains have to draw a map of the whole harbor by memory?), they knew the vessels and their capabilities and capacities, and they knew each other, so they could rely on personal networks and existing relationships of trust.

one of the most important things that happened is that people improvised – not only the evacuation as a whole, but all the little bits of it as it progressed. rules were assessed for their practicality at the moment, and not for bureaucratic procedure. people took orders from their subordinates. people overloaded ferries**. she quotes one person talking about the “mike wallace factor” – could he justify his action on 60 minutes? was he letting bureaucracy get in the way of saving people?

the coast guard thing was important because it has institutionalized improvisation; wachtendorf quotes one person as saying that when you’re 200 miles offshore, you don’t radio in for help or directions, you just do what needs doing.

another strong theme that emerged was that though people didn’t have a plan for this exact situation, they very quickly mapped on analogous plans and adapted them on the fly. the bizarrest example of this she gave was the original organization of people on shore awaiting evacuation – they separated men from women & children, and gave priority to the women & children! they became more flexible about this as the day progressed (and as they saw that people were uncomfortable but not in danger), allowing families to stay together and allowing older men on ferries. in their own words, they were influenced by – yep, you guessed it – their imaginaries of the titanic, especially the movie version.

i keep thinking about 2 things, one during her talk and one upon reflection. during the talk i kept thinking about what i know about emergency situations in my own life, on rafting trips. rafting is a good case, because it’s an activity that seems relatively innocuous on the surface (it’s like camping, with water!) but can turn very ugly very quickly, so you want to go with experienced people who are quick on their feet. really, you never know when things will go wrong but you’ll often have to act within seconds when they do. on my most recent fantastic trip, we realized too late how cold my mom had gotten, and she had in fact progressed to serious pre-hypothermia by the time we stopped for lunch. i’ve never seen my dad get out a sleeping bag, dry clothes, and a space blanket faster – within 2 minutes of hitting shore. that’s a silly example, but the others are best told over a camp fire.

anyway, the point i’m trying to make is that it’s really important to carefully choose your boating companions, and to take along people you trust and who have reliable and useful skills. i’ve always known this but i can now see how my boating group has long been building in the requisites for effective improvised emergency management (existing networks of people who know each others’ skill sets and equipment capacities). and also, i think, how we often don’t even recognize those skills as skills until we need them (and maybe not even then) – so much of this is tacit knowledge that we acquire through proximity rather than any kind of explicit lesson.

wachtendorf responded to a question about how institutionalizable this model of emergency management is – after all, it seemed to work well but only because it wasn’t institutionalized! she alluded to the fact that though there was no training specifically for this situation, some folks did have other emergency procedures in their training or memories, and they were able to adapt them. i’ll go further and say that perhaps those counterfactual trainings – any kind of emergency training, really – are necessary NOT for their content but for how they get us to practice improvisation and think about some of the things we should really be incorporating in a tacit way to our practices. in rafting, one thing there would be having a good knife easily accessible at all times. you hardly ever use that knife in normal situations, but the second you need a knife you probably don’t have time to go looking for one.

wachtendorf also said that what was particularly useful in the evacuation scenario was the network and knowledge of the community: these folks were non-credentialed, they knew community resources and abilities, and they valued coordination over control. local knowledge was intimately tied in to the (temporary) institutional actors. this sounds like what happens in small towns, too.

so that leads me to my more reflective thinking, which is that perhaps this is a more general case of the importance of tying local knowledge to institutional structures. in schools, what i know best right now, local knowledge is often not well-connected to the administration, which results in a rigid bureaucracy that controls from top-down. if the administration had a better sense of the abilities of teachers and principals, it could cede more control to them to act in flexible ways that would probably be more conducive to learning outcomes (and pleasant school/work environments). so the big question is, how do we institutionalize that kind of local knowledge, and how do we encourage systems to keep their administrators more involved in what’s going on (and less involved in, say, paperwork and politics)? i have some ideas here but this post is damn well long enough already.

*her talk was interesting, but also interesting is the fact (pointed out by the introducer) that when you google her name, EVERY SINGLE DAMN RESULT correctly points to her.

** wachtendorf admits they got lucky here, that there were no boat collisions and especially when there often weren’t enough life jackets to go around. but again, as the captains reevaluated through the day and realized that there was no immediate life & death danger, they revised their capacities downward.

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