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Study focuses on 9/11 evacuation of Manhattan by water

A U.S. Coast Guard rescue team from Sandy Hook, N.J., races to the scene of the World Trade Center terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. USCG photo by PA2 Tom Sperduto

4:06 p.m., Sept. 8, 2006--The unplanned but successful evacuation of Lower Manhattan by boats and ferries following the terror attack on Sept. 11, 2001, may have important implications for dealing with future disasters, according to Tricia Wachtendorf, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice and a core faculty member at UD's Disaster Research Center (DRC), and James Kendra, coordinator of the Emergency Administration and Planning Program (EADP) at the University of North Texas.

"In response to the emerging need for transportation, boats of all descriptions converged on Manhattan,” Wachtendorf said. “Some acted quite independently. Others sought permission from the Coast Guard, who initially instructed vessels first to stand by, then to position themselves in readiness before issuing its request for all available boats to participate in the evacuation."

Watchendorf explained that some boat operators proceeded according to their best judgment while others acted under the direction of Coast Guard personnel or harbor pilots. As multiple boat operators worked out the details of picking up passengers, a landward support network developed.

"Waterfront workers and maritime personnel directed passengers to an appropriate area where they might find a boat to take them to a destination close to home or to where they might find other transportation," Wachtendorf said. “At the same time, a boatlift operation emerged and vessels involved in the evacuation began transporting supplies, equipment and emergency personnel to the city.”

Tricia Wachtendorf, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice and a core faculty member at UD’s Disaster Research Center: "In response to the emerging need for transportation, boats of all descriptions converged on Manhattan.” Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson
Wachtendorf and Kendra traveled to New York City two days after the attack to begin a comprehensive study of the multi-organizational response to the 9/11 disaster. During that initial study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Public Entity Risk Institute, and the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, Wachtendorf and Kendra became particularly interested in the levels of improvisation and creativity that were being employed in the response.

The current project, which is funded by a three-year $350,000 NSF grant and $25,000 from UD, examines organizational improvisation and sense-making under conditions of rapid change and urgent needs for decision and action. The focus is on multiple organizations that are geographically dispersed yet nevertheless able to "make sense" with each other regarding swiftly developing emergency needs. Moreover, it explores how these organizations are able to coordinate their actions both responsively and productively, Wachtendorf said.

The study involves qualitative analysis techniques, social network analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) methods. The South Street Seaport Museum in Manhattan also has provided access to its oral history documents. The study has implications for diverse disciplines, such as organizational studies, collective behavior, social psychology, geography, sociology and social networks. The findings will lead to recommendations for policy guidance and emergency planning both within and outside the harbor community.

A sociologist with a research emphasis on complex organizations, Wachtendorf has broad experience in studying disasters and community-based disaster planning and response, and conducting qualitative fieldwork in disaster environments.

Kendra is a geographer with a research emphasis on human-environment interactions. He has extensive research experience studying the merchant shipping industry, holds an unlimited tonnage merchant mariner license and has worked for nearly 1,500 days at sea aboard a variety of vessels in worldwide service.

Also contributing to the project are Jasmin Ruback, a social psychologist with extensive expertise in researching evacuation behavior, who has provided assistance on disaster-related issues to a variety of government agencies, including FEMA and the Office of the Surgeon General; project coordinators John Barnshaw, a graduate student at UD, and Brandi Lea, a graduate student at the University of North Texas (UNT); UD graduate students Bethany Brown and Lynn Letukas; and UD undergraduate student researchers Jeffrey Engle, Caroline Williams, Lauren Ross and Chris Colindres.

New Yorkers rushed to the Lower Manhattan water front at Battery Park to try to escape the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. They were later evacuated by ferries and tugboats from all over New York harbor. USCG photo by Chief Brandon Brewer
"We are integrating experienced graduate student researchers at every level of the study as these are the next generation of disaster researchers,” Kendra said.

UD's Disaster Research Center is the oldest center in the world devoted to studying the social science aspects of disasters. UNT's Emergency Administration and Planning Program was the first program in the country to offer an undergraduate degree in emergency management.

UD and UNT have long histories of teaching disaster-related classes to undergraduate and graduate students and routinely disseminating information based on their studies to the research and applied emergency management communities.

Article by Martin Mbugua

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