"Cajun Navy" rescuers in Hurricane Harvey show vital role of volunteer boats

Unconventional emergency rescue operations during natural disasters demonstrate the strength of community

Published September 3, 2017 9:59AM (EDT)

Rescue boats fill a flooded street as flood victims are evacuated. (AP/David J. Phillip)
Rescue boats fill a flooded street as flood victims are evacuated. (AP/David J. Phillip)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

As we look at the devastating losses suffered in Texas from Hurricane Harvey and in Louisiana following severe flooding in 2016, one of the inspiring aspects to emerge are the reports of the “Cajun Navy” — everyday residents in their boats checking on and rescuing family, friends, neighbors and even strangers in need.

The efforts of the Cajun Navy, however, are not unusual. Indeed, one consolation of these disasters is the extent to which the informal responses bolster stressed and overburdened formal response systems.

This type of emergent activity has become an integral component of the disaster environment. Over a half-century of research by the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware and with other disaster scientists shows how typical it is for groups of people to engage in new tasks, work with people they’ve never worked before or both.

From Katrina to 9/11

Disasters, after all, by their very definition signify that some aspects of the more official emergency management system has been overwhelmed. This could be due to poor planning, but it also could be related to the size of the event or some unusual aspect that has taken us by surprise.

Communities in Louisiana know this well and need only recall the tremendous contribution of boat owners after Hurricane Katrina. The Coast Guard, one of the few federal agencies to receive considerable praise after that catastrophe, demonstrated remarkable skill in working with the ad hoc flotilla of boats contributing to rescue operations. But a few years before Katrina, we saw something similar occur in another part of the country to a very different type of disaster.

During the September 11, 2001 attacks, as most people were concentrated on the fires at the Pentagon, the crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the collapse of the Twin Towers, a remarkable and less noticed scene was unfolding along the New York Harbor waterfront.

Mariners from across the harbor spontaneously converged, some of their own accord and some in response to a Coast Guard call for all available boats, to provide assistance. Vessels of all sorts succeeded in moving hundreds of thousands of evacuees from around the southern reaches of the island, despite the fact that there was no plan in place for such a mass activity.

Doing what needs to be done

In the maritime community, the imperative toward rescue is very strong, and maritime law compels seafarers to provide assistance to vessels in peril. In researching boat owners’ response on September 11, we found mariners extended their rescue ethos to provide assistance to evacuees still on land. The Coast Guard demonstrated the same culture of flexibility they later exhibited after Katrina struck.

One of our interviewees described a lead official at the time: “He went with the flow. ‘If you need me I’m here’ . . . It wasn’t like he was trying to play Big Mr. Coast Guard.” That is, what was commendable about the official actions of the Coast Guard, harbor pilots and harbor police is that they recognized the value of the emergent resource around them. They saw people with particular skills working in their areas of expertise, doing things well, and they came to the conclusion the response was better off letting them help.

Not everyone appreciates those contributions as readily as others. Even after the August 2016 flooding in Louisiana, we heard of some initial resistance to volunteer efforts. But we can’t tout the resilience of community or the value of the “whole community” in disaster response if we wholesale forbid them from stepping up to rightfully do what needs to be done.

We see that the willingness to “just do what needs to be done” — a phrase that mariners used repeatedly after 9/11 to describe their actions — is not a uniquely Gulf Coast tendency. Nor is it uniquely American.

Consider the boat operators who spontaneously converged and worked alongside formal responders while a shooter attacked a youth camp on the Norwegian island of Utoya. Like his 9/11 peers, one boat operator described in a Telegraph interview that you “just do what it takes.”

In the flooding following Hurricane Harvey, the Cajun Navy has been doing what it takes. But it has also illustrated, yet again, that the success of our formal responses often depends upon latent capacities already present in our communities. Following Hurricane Harvey, we saw law enforcement officials such as those in Harris County specifically reach out to include such emergent resources in their response. Such actions are commendable and likely helped to save lives.

We must be clear: those emergent efforts do not replace the resources required from outside the affected areas or by those we often deem as officials. Citizen capacity does not justify divestment.

In events on the scale of disaster and catastrophe, however, those formal systems will fall short without involving informal responses in a meaningful way. And in some cases, lives will be lost. Although safety and security are critical during a crisis, there is value in the improvised citizen response to disaster.

Value in planning and improvisation

Throughout history, frustration with current policies has often led to changes in disaster management. As historian Scott Knowles pointed out, even the Federal Emergency Management Agency was established in 1979 in response to a concern that disaster response was too fragmented across agencies. More recently, a focus on the Incident Command System has permeated the rhetoric of American emergency management.

The Incident Command System, which is a formalized management system of organizing resources and tasks, is highly practical in incidents such as wildfires — the type of hazard for which the Incident Command System was first developed. And it was born out of the frustrations with incompatible systems across organizations. But our research on the boat evacuation of 9/11, as well as evaluation by other social scientists, points to how the Incident Command System does not deliver a completely uniform compatible system in more decentralized, complex disasters. This is precisely because improvised and emergent activity can’t be fully structured ahead of time. Instead, the Incident Command System works quite well in emergencies where established responders are working with other established and expected responders. The incident command system is, basically, a tool for agencies to manage themselves.

The word “incident” itself is telling: a confined, or localized event. Scholars have listed the characteristics of an event that could be managed in an incident command system: relatively small, relatively readily understood, established technical procedures, and a lack of emergent activity. The interpretation of the event rests in the hands of a few specialists. But agencies managing themselves is not the same as managing a disaster. A disaster entails different interpretations, involving all the functions of community — functions that are never clearly understood and that are always contested. Those functions aren’t commanded, they are negotiated.

Boat operators on 9/11 did not neatly fit into an Incident Command System system, nor could they have, given the surprise of their involvement. But the reason they were able to do so much was because no one forced them to. Rather, they were able to evolve and fit alongside formal systems in a thoughtful, collaborative and deliberate way.

We are sure to eventually hear examples of risks unnecessarily taken, or of errors in judgment, throughout the vast armada of boat operators engaged in rescue operations in flooded Houston and surrounding communities, just like there may have been isolated cases in flooded Louisiana communities last year. But that shouldn’t let us lose sight of the impressive coordination and collaboration that bolstered this response effort.

We must continue to learn the right lessons from disaster: that there is value to both planning and improvisation in disaster. That although citizens might sometimes make mistakes, they also enable the greatest of responses. That successful disaster response, in part, depends on a willingness of formal responders to acknowledge the capacities of our citizenry, be they mariners or farmers, welders or educators, or something else entirely.

So thank you to the Cajun Navy, and to the rest of those in flood-affected communities drawing on their supplies, equipment and know-how to help their neighbors, to help complete strangers and to keep reminding us of the value of citizenry in disaster response.

The ConversationThis is an updated version of an article originally published on August 22, 2016.

Tricia Wachtendorf, Professor of Sociology, Director of Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware and James Kendra, Professor of Public Policy & Administration, University of Delaware

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