University of Delaware and University of North Texas
Study of the September 11th, 2001
Waterborne Evacuation
of Lower Manhattan

On September 13 2001,
Tricia Wachtendorf and James Kendra traveled to
New York City to begin a comprehensive study of the multi-organizational response to
the 9/11 disaster. Working with Kathleen Tierney, principal investigator of that initial study,
and with funding from the National Science Foundation, 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. One often overlooked improvised episode of the response stood
out for the two researchers: the unplanned but successful waterborne evacuation of hundreds
of thousands of commuters and residents from Lower Manhattan. In 2005, Dr. Wachtendorf and
Dr. Kendra secured support from the National Science Foundation and the University of
Delaware Research Foundation to study this important event. The South Street Seaport
Museum has also been instrumental in providing access to its oral history documents.

View of the Twin Towers before September 11

The boat lift began before the collapse of the Twin Towers, as some
ferry captains arriving in Manhattan turned around with their passengers rather than disembark
them, while others picked up people who had reached the waterfront early in the emergency.
As the emergency developed, people evacuating from the Trade Center area traveled on foot in
all directions: some uptown; some eastward over the Brooklyn Bridge; others south and west,
where they were brought up short at the waterfront. According to Wachtendorf, "In response to
the emerging need for transportation, boats of all descriptions converged on Manhattan. 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." A variegated pattern of activities
developed. Some boat operators proceeded according to their best judgment while others acted
under the direction of Coast Guard personnel or harbor pilots.

USCG NEW YORK, New York (Sept. 11)--Coast Guard crewmembers patrol the harbor after the collapse of the World Trade Center. Terrorist hijacked four commercial jets and then crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside. USCG photo by PA3 Tom Sperduto. The U.S. Coast Guard Imagery Server is provided as a public service by the Office of Assistant Commandant for Governmental and Public Affairs.  

As multiple boat operators worked out the details of picking up passengers,
a landward support network developed. According to Kendra, "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." At the same time,
a boat-lift operation emerged and vessels involved in the evacuation began transporting supplies,
equipment, and emergency personnel to the city.

Evacuees head to water front NEW YORK (Sept. 11, 2001) New Yorkers rushed to the Lower Manhattan water front at Battery Park to try to escape the collapse of the World Trade Center towers September 11. They were later evacuated by ferries and tugboats from all over New York harbor. USCG photo by Chief Brandon Brewer. The U.S. Coast Guard Imagery Server is provided as a public service by the Office of Assistant Commandant for Governmental and Public Affairs

This project examines organizational improvisation and sensemaking 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.

According to a recent Report in Brief - Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding
Human Dimensions - distributed by The National Academies: "Systematic studies of how societies
complement expected and sometimes planned responses with improvised activities are...needed.
For example, in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks first responders had to work around the
loss of New York City's Emergency Operations Center..." Wachtendorf and Kendra have, in fact,
published on the improvisation regarding New York City's loss of its EOC on 9/11. This current
study of the waterborne evacuation and organizational improvisation further addresses the kinds of
issues stressed as critical by the National Academies report and recommended for study by its
Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences.

Wachtendorf and Kendra study the Indian Ocean tsunami
In addition their quick response field work following the World Trade Center Disaster, Tricia Wachtendorf and James Kendra have studied such events as the 2005 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The researchers are pictured here speaking with tsunami victims and aid workers in Tamil Nadu, India.

A strong team of researchers comprises this collaborative research project. The University
of Delaware's Disaster Research Center is the oldest center in the world devoted to studying the social
science aspects of disasters and the Emergency Administration and Planning Program at the University
of North Texas was the first program in the country to offer an undergraduate degree in emergency
management. Both institutions have long history 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.

Tricia Wachtendorf
Dr. Tricia Wachtendorf is a sociologist with a research emphasis on complex organizations. She has significant experience conducting qualitative field work in disaster environments, and her research has included comprehensive studies of community-based disaster planning and response, improvised action, and multi-jurisdictional coordination. 

James Kendra
Dr. James Kendra is a geographer with a research emphasis in human-environment interactions. He has extensive research experience studying the merchant shipping industry, holds an unlimited tonnage master mariner license, and worked for nearly 1500 days at sea aboard a variety of vessels in worldwide service.

Jasmin Ruback
Also contributing to the project is Dr. Jasmin Ruback of Ruback Associates. Dr. Ruback is a social psychologist with an expertise in researching evacuation behavior. She has provided assistance to a variety of government agencies, including FEMA and the Office of the Surgeon General, on disaster-related issues.
Several other researchers play an important role in this project. Project manager Lynn Letukas
(University of Delaware) and Brandi Lea (University of North Texas) are also currently interviewing
key participants who were involved in this response. University of Delaware researchers Bethany Brown
and John Barnshaw are assisting on the project. This study involves qualitative analysis techniques,
social network analysis, and Geographic Information Systems methods. According to James
Kendra, "We are integrating experienced graduate student researchers at every level of the study as
these are the next generation of disaster researchers." As Tricia Wachtendorf explains, "Support from
the University of Delaware Research Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Department
of Defense has funded two Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) fellows and several
students from our home institutions. These undergraduate students have been well integrated into many
aspects of the research."

Lynn Letukas Brandi Lea
Bethany Brown
Lynn Letukas
Brandi Lea
Bethany Brown
John Barnshaw
Caroline Williams

Jeffrey Engle
John Barnshaw
Caroline Williams - graduated
Jeffrey Engle
Lauren Ross
Chris Colindres
Brandi Gilbert
Lauren Ross - graduated
Chris Colindres
Brandi Gilbert - graduated

This important study has implications for such diverse disciplines as organizational studies,
collective behavior, social psychology, geography, sociology, and social networks. The findings,
however, will also lead to recommendations for policy guidance and have relevance for emergency
planning both within and outside the harbor community. It is our hope that if implemented, the results
should offer benefits by enhancing government and private sector abilities to respond inter-organizationally
to disastrous events.

Please check back regularly as findings, links to papers, and other information is posted. 

Selection of Material Available Online

Read Wachtendorf and Kendra's essay examining improvisation during the responses to Hurricane Katrina and New York.

Read Wachtendorf's work on improvisation during the World Trade Center response.

Read Kendra and Wachtendorf's article on creativity during the World Trade Center response

Read Kendra and Wachtendorf's preliminary paper on distributed sensemaking during the evacuation...[coming soon]

Selection of Other Related Articles in Print or in Preparation

Wachtendorf, Tricia and James M. Kendra. A Typology of Organizational Improvisation During Disaster. In Preparation.

Kendra, James M. and Tricia Wachtendorf, The Waterborne Evacuation of Lower Manhattan on September 11: A Case of Distributed Sensemaking. In Preparation.

Kendra, James M. and Tricia Wachtendorf, 2003. Reconsiderinng Convergence and Converger Legitimacy in Response to the World Trade Center Disaster. Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas (ed. Lee Clark. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy (11), 97-122.

Kendra, James M. and Tricia Wachtendorf, and E.L. Quarantelli, 2003. The Evacuation of Lower Manhattan by Water Transport on September 11:  An Unplanned Success. Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Safety, 29 (6), 316-318.

Kendra, James M. and Tricia Wachtendorf, 2003. Elements of Community Resilience in the World Trade Center Attack. Disasters, 27(1), 37-53.

Disaster Research Report: Studying the 9/11 Waterborne  Evacuation - A newsletter highlighting recent activities, upcoming events, and information about the project as well as the NY/NJ harbor and disaster research communities.

Volume 1 Issue 1 October 2006

Volume 2 Issue 1 August 2007

Questions about this study can be directed to:

Dr. Tricia Wachtendorf
University of Delaware
Telephone: 302-831-1254


Dr. James Kendra
University of North Texas
Telephone: 940-565-2213

 Update August 2007

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