Obligation, vigilance, and perseverance are among the professional qualities of the merchant mariner. Whether one attends a maritime academy, as I did, or comes up through the hawsepipe, in seagoing service mariners learn and practice the ethos of care to crew, ship, and the environment. Mariners are supposed to display those qualities in spite of cold, or rain, or discomfort–one of my strongest memories of the academy is being on lookout, freezing, wearing all my jackets. Mariners are supposed to be ready, to be watchful, to put together skills and equipment and to balance paradox and contradiction to make a successful voyage.
The New York Harbor community combined all these unique attributes on 9/11, evacuating hundreds of thousands of commuters and residents of Lower Manhattan to Staten Island, to New Jersey, and elsewhere in New York City in an improvised fleet of boats: tugs, dinner boats, tour boats, private vessels. Over the course of those hours, boats made trip after trip across the harbor. Then, as the number of evacuees from Manhattan tapered off, the boatlift shifted to transporting responders and supplies to the island, an operation that continued for several days. They accomplished the largest water evacuation in history without planning, without practice—and without accidents.
What made this possible? To find out, my coauthor Tricia Wachtendorf and I talked with boat operators and waterfront workers, piecing together their stories for our book American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11. Foremost was a spirit of service and a duty to rescue that is characteristic of the maritime community. Law and tradition require a mariner to come to the aid of a person at sea in danger of being lost. On 9/11 mariners widened the compass of their obligation to include the people who were queuing up at the shoreline.
The participants in this evacuation saw themselves as part of an active maritime community. Everyone knew everyone else, they said. They knew each others’ boats, and personnel were always moving from company to company, creating a strong network of acquaintance. Even though the commercial setting could sometimes be highly competitive, there were also habits of cooperation: any company might need help from any other in an emergency. It’s almost a rule in the disaster field that the planning process is more important than the plan itself. Responders have to become familiar with each others’ capacities, resources, and limitations. The years of interaction and familiarity were actually a planning process for urban disaster management, though they didn’t know it.
Mariners lead lives of paradox. GPS provides fabulous accuracy, but the prudent mariner is still reminded to check it by other means. Some mariners have attended disciplined and hierarchical academies where they live a regimented lifestyle while also learning Bridge Team Management, to adopt proper communications skills that short-circuit the intimidation of hierarchy. They operate in a complex web of maneuvering rules, which also contain a rule that prescribes that the rules should be broken when they’re not working. Often their information is ambiguous, as with weather, so they are sensitive to margins of error. In this complex milieu, mariners are always making judgments about safety, speed, and efficiency. These judgments abounded on 9/11.
They carried passengers on boats not certified for that. In some cases, they exceeded boats’ passenger capacity. Boat operators said they didn’t do this recklessly, but looked at the boat’s performance, the distribution of additional weight, and the demands of the immediate crisis. Certainly the usual margin of safety was narrowed in this event both with respect to capacity and to navigation. In some areas around the harbor the dust was so thick that visibility was zero, but they continued on. “Radar, don’t fail me now!” recalled one captain thinking as he approached the entrance to North Cove. Sometimes, boat captains took on bystanders to assist in embarking evacuees or in handling lines. Boats used piers they were unaccustomed to, or that weren’t designed for passengers, and had to jury-rig gangways because of the different heights. The captains were careful, using their experience and judgment to know how much they could push the boundary of risk. Other rules were slackened. A Coast Guard officer authorized fueling without permits. Two harbor pilots took golf carts to move supplies. The main thing was that when they pushed the limits, they were thoughtful, weighing the risk as experience has taught them.
Sometimes older technologies are more adaptable than modern ones. A break-bulk ship can work cargo anywhere, but a container ship, not so much. Efficiency sometimes erases adaptability, but disasters remind us of the importance of older tools and technologies, such as radio. Certainly there are tools to help the modern disaster manager: satellite photography, robotics, drones. But a lot of disaster management is old-fashioned work: moving things and people, staging equipment, organizing activities, talking on the phone. Probably the exemplar of this principle during 9/11 was the John J. Harvey, a retired fireboat that had been bought and restored by a group of enthusiasts. On the morning of September 11, the group boarded the Harvey and got underway first just to see what was happening, then they moved some evacuees, but then the Harvey’s real talent became obvious: the capacity to pump a lot of water. That capacity, left over from now-ancient days of wooden piers and warehouses and stacked-up flammable cargoes, was just what was needed to charge the fire hoses now substituting for the destroyed infrastructure at Ground Zero. Even in normal times, the Harvey demonstrated the qualities of prudence and vigilance. One of her owners, a retired fireboat captain, insisted they always have some usable firehose on hand, just in case.
Of course, there were challenges. The era of deep-draft commercial maritime use of much of Lower Manhattan has long since past. The waterfront had few good locations for the boats to embark passengers and lacked critical shoreside infrastructure, such as bollards or cleats, to tie boats to. Meanwhile, the smooth stone surface of the Battery Park seawall threatened to damage boats that were coming alongside. The sailboat Ventura, for example, could not tie up there because of being buffeted against the wall. “We’re going to have a boat that’s full of matchsticks and it’s going to sink,” said the captain. Even the durable Harvey got “quite a battering.” Some boats tied up to trees to hold steady for taking on evacuees. In other instances there was too much infrastructure, some of it in the form of fences and ornamental ironwork. Several participants in the evacuation reported simply cutting down the fences to clear a path for the evacuees.
The boat operations demonstrate what we have seen in many disasters: the importance of improvised, unscripted activities, and the importance of new groups, organizations, and networks. In spite of a widespread desire to “command and control,” that is not possible in an unfolding community-wide disaster. Most people are rescued by bystanders, for example, often well before formal responders arrive, which shows that there is always a grassroots dimension to disaster management. 9/11 maritime activities took place all around New York Harbor. No one could have full “command” of these activities, where needs were being identified and handled in an organic way through a growing network. The Coast Guard took a coordinating but not a commanding role. They wisely made no effort to take over the entire operation, recognizing that they needed to let it unfold. And there would be no way to command activities that were happening at Liberty Landing, or at Weehawken, or at Highlands, a 17-mile transit from Manhattan, where they were all dealing with their own needs of sorting passengers, decontaminating people, and offering comfort and bottles of water.
The 9/11 boat operations offer some insights for urban disaster management and resilience, organizations, and communities. Key features of resilience are redundancy, substitutability, and mobility. Some vessels can operate even if others are out of service. Boats are a mobile resource, easily moved around as needed. If some facilities are damaged, others may be available or can be improvised on short notice. Some vessels of more rugged construction served as floating piers, so that other vessels of lighter design would not be damaged against the seawall. Vessels are connected by VHF radio—nearly always available– and vessel movements are organized not by a flowchart or a rigid command structure but rather by a nautical chart and the mariners’ operational knowledge of that area: its laws, regulations, and customs. Public officials in waterfront cities should look closely at the different transport modes available. In particular, emergency managers and urban planners and engineers should work much more closely together to identify needs and resources.
James Kendra is a graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy and a former merchant marine officer. He is Director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.