In that capacity, civilian captains were able to determine what
vessels were best suited to what task, along with where they would dock
and in what order — often with no oversight or logistical support from
government agencies, according to Wachtendorf.
“You had tugboats bringing in medical supplies and personnel, and it
was often up to the captains to figure out what vessels had what
capabilities,” she said. “The Coast Guard was involved in that
coordination, but it was very much coordinated amongst the captains
themselves. They had all the knowledge, and they were able to figure it
out, either by radio or by voice.”
The pair’s studies show that disasters are rarely single,
self-contained events able to be handled by one leader, however
competent, and are better described as a cascade of separate, related
emergencies that arise from the swift and sudden changes in
circumstances — as traffic shuts down, utilities cease to function, and
lines of communication drop dead — and that in the heat of the moment,
men and women of various walks of life can and should be trusted to use
their various skills to bring aid to those who need it.
“Disaster is not a single thing that one person can control — it’s a
community event,” said Kendra. “We saw an emphasis on, where there was
leadership, it was based on communication and coordination, and letting
things happen when they worked.”
The lesson of “American Dunkirk,” say the authors, is that officials
should recognize the experience, professionalism, and courage of
everyday New Yorkers — especially the grizzled old sea dogs who saved so
many on that otherwise dark day.
“In the boat evacuation, the fact that these were members of a
community who new each other, the environment, and their vessels very
well, they proved very effective in that situation,” said Kendra.