Book Review: American Dunkirk

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Kendra, James and Tricia Wachtendorf. American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016)

Did you know that between 300,000 and 500,000 people left Lower Manhattan Island by boat on September 11, 2001? The boat-lift was spontaneous, self-organized for the most part, and has been relatively unsung. The Coast Guard eventually acted as sort-of-coordinator, but had little or nothing to do with the efforts at first.

American Dunkirk is both an account of the boat-lift, and a discussion of disaster preparation and response. The authors are professors of public policy and sociology respectively, with a focus on disaster research. Their focus sets the framework for the book, and explains why it is not considered a history of the events the way some of the other accounts are.

People all along the waterfront in New York and New Jersey saw the planes hit the towers, or heard about it from the news, from co-workers, or via cell-phone. Some chose to see to their families first, and the authors are very quick to point out that people from the waterfront community who did not jump into the fray had very good reasons, and there is nothing wrong with their actions. The authors regret not being able to interview those people, because it would help with their research and argument. Since I was reading the book for boat stories, I didn’t miss the lack of accounts.

The big point is that when things started getting bad, hundreds of people literally ran for their boats, tug boats, ferries, tour-boats, little boats, even a museum boat that just happened to be a fully functional fire-boat. And they all headed for Manhattan Island. On the way, and as the day progressed, they organized themselves. Then the harbor pilots joined the effort along with the Coast Guard, directing boats to places where they could land the most easily. In addition to official docks, some ships nosed into the seawall, others tucked themselves into nooks and crannies, tying up to trees and fence posts, and taking on the terrified, stranded, and lost as people sought to flee Manhattan.

The authors look at a lot of factors that made the evacuation so successful. One is the common training and ethos of the seamen, and the necessity of rescue. These men and women were trained to sail toward ships in distress, and an island in distress was no different. They all knew the waters very, very well. Most were used to improvising because water conditions always change. Many had more than one skill, and all shifted roles when the need arose. The common culture of the small world of the waterside in NY-NJ helped as well. People trusted each other not to screw up, and no one did. There were no people lost overboard, no one collided, no one sank. People departed Manhattan, and supplies and first responders hurried to where they were most needed.

There are also other stories, about people who started on the boats, then found other places where their skills could be used. The authors refer to other disasters and compare and contrast how authorities responded in NYC to those events. Overall the Coast Guard and FDNY, NYPD come across very well. The various park police and park employees not so well, but the authors point out that they had a closer and more direct chain of command that tolerated far less improvisation than did others.

The book is aimed at disaster and emergency managers, and the last chapter centers on the weaknesses of tightly structured official emergency response plans. The authors prefer a looser, more flexible approach.

I found the book both fascinating for the stories and useful for thinking about “What would I do if…” and “What would Amarillo do if…” and “How do I help neighbors if the police/fire say…” I wouldn’t recommend it if you are just interested in the story of the evacuation, but for the evacuation in the context of society and disasters of various flavors, it is a fascinating, very well-written book. The list price is $50.00 because it is an academic monograph, so Inter-Library Loan would be the best option.

FTC Disclaimer: I read this book from the library and received no remuneration from the authors or publisher for this review.


8 thoughts on “Book Review: American Dunkirk

  1. When the emergency comes, no one ever goes looking for the manual.
    The planning process is important. The actual plan, not so much.

  2. I’ve spent over 30 years in various aspects of the nuclear power industry. One of the commandments of the industry is training for emergencies. Everything from a simple spill of contaminated liquid, to fires, and up to catastrophic failure is worked out. Drills and “Table Top” sessions are conducted often. Procedures are written for every conceivable scenario. However, as I often pointed out form both sides of table in training sessions, during a real emergency you need to be able to know when to improvise. Almost by definition, if you can predict the event to the point of writing a detailed response procedure, you can design a fix that will prevent or mitigate the damage.

    Are drills and procedures worthless? Absolutely not. Drills reinforce a mindset of coping with the unexpected. Procedure get you moving when the “Fit hits the Shan.” Practice also lets you know what supplies and equipment you need to pre-stage and where best to position them. However, don’t get bogged down in rigidly following procedures. Be familiar with your environment and what is changing, take a step back and make sure you are taking care of your priorities, Save lives, evacuate non-participants, medical aid for the injured, prevent further damage, etc. One of the best lessons I learned from a “Table Top” drill after Three Mile Island was that the team is greater than the individual parts. Everyone has blind spots, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but a team, will allow individuals to cover each other’s deficiencies. A dictatorship will miss the holes in the leaders thinking.

    • Planning and drills are important. Also important, as NRW points out, is understanding the goal: save lives, reduce further damage, shut down as safely as possible. Process can change to meet the goal, but never change the emergency’s goal to meet the process.

      With enough practice or training you can adjust process on the fly for unusual conditions, or take charge of an emergency. People will get over it later; if not, they never should have been allowed near the decision point.

  3. I seem to recall that a fair amount of Roman sailors tried to sail toward Pompeii to pick people up. It didn’t work out too well for some of them, but at least they tried.

    Pliny the Elder was one of them, changing his ideas from observing a phenomenon of natural philosophy to rescuing people: “As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carries out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene.”

    (Pliny the Younger, letter VI.16, addressed to Tacitus)

    I like that one phrase a lot: “rectumque cursum recta gubernacula in periculum tenet”

    “And with the straight steering oars, he held his course straight into danger.”

    • Apparently I interpreted the sentence construction wrongly. It’s “He held his course and his steering oars straight into danger.”

      Sigh. If only I’d taken Latin more seriously when young.

  4. Yep, good monograph. I read that through Navy channels. It would be interesting to see if they do the same thing with the Cajun Navy. Similar operations, ‘home grown’ if you will, but damned effective in spite of the bureaucracy trying to ‘manage’ them… LOL

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