How an unplanned maritime response to the 9/11 disaster showed creativity, improvisation, and the power of community-based resources

American Dunkirk

The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11

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James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf

"James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf have amassed and analyzed the most comprehensive data set available on the waterborne evacuation of lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. They use the data to present a fascinating account of the massive efforts that marked that tragic day. American Dunkirk stands as a significant contribution to emergency management scholarship and practice."
Lori Peek, Associate Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University and author of Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11

When the terrorist attacks struck New York City on September 11, 2001, boat operators and waterfront workers quickly realized that they had the skills, the equipment, and the opportunity to take definite, immediate action in responding to the most significant destructive event in the United States in decades. For many of them, they were "doing what needed to be done."

American Dunkirk shows how people, many of whom were volunteers, mobilized rescue efforts in various improvised and spontaneous ways on that fateful date. Disaster experts James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf examine the efforts through fieldwork and interviews with many of the participants to understand the evacuation and its larger implications for the entire practice of disaster management.

The authors ultimately explore how people—as individuals, groups, and formal organizations—pull together to respond to and recover from startling, destructive events. American Dunkirk asks, What can these people and lessons teach us about not only surviving but thriving in the face of calamity?



Read the Prologue (pdf).



"Weaving a purposeful, compelling story of a particular aspect of the 9/11 tragedy, Kendra and Wachtendorf provide a firm grounding in the social sciences to interpret their observations. Whether by design or sheer luck, the authors were able to integrate themselves with the right persons in the right place and at the right time to craft a unique book that masterfully synthesizes arguments and literatures. American Dunkirk's core philosophical questions about the orthodoxy of both tactical and strategic thinking in emergency management provide food for thought."
Jack Rozdilsky, Associate Professor of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University, Canada

"American Dunkirk's case history of the unofficial maritime response to 9/11, which resulted in the successful evacuation of five hundred thousand people in lower Manhattan, proposes a theoretical reassessment of the role of decentralized, volunteer, improvised disaster response. The authors' uplifting narrative account displays a theoretical commitment to the idea that civilian disaster response is not so much heroic as an extension of fundamental human capabilities, attitudes, and skills—people come together to do what they need to do."
Naomi Zack, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon and author of Ethics for Disaster

"American Dunkirk is an excellent case study of the waterborne evacuation of Manhattan and makes a strong argument for the need for planning and organizational improvisation in disaster."
Natural Hazards Observer

"A compelling read. It helps to explain the incredible events of the 9/11 boatlift, while also providing insight into approaches to future disaster management."

"American Dunkirk examines the success of (the 9/11) maritime evacuation.... By directly interviewing (the) maritime workers, the authors were able to collect rich and evocative stories about the largest maritime evacuation in American history. What makes this case even more remarkable is that these efforts were carried out by civilians with no formal training or instruction..... American Dunkirk provides an illuminating look into how people collectively define and respond to a traumatic event.... (A) compelling case for rethinking existing emergency management paradigms, as well as the misconceptions that people will act selfishly or irrationally after disasters."
Social Forces




1. Making Sense of Disaster
2. We Did What We Had to Do: Identity, Ethos, and Community in Action
3. Making Sense and Taking Action
4. Breaking Rules, Making Rules: The Paradox of Disaster
5. Blending Art and Science, or Mindful Muddling: Toward a New Concept of Disaster Management



About the Author(s)

James Kendra is a Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration and Tricia Wachtendorf is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. They are the Directors of the Disaster Research Center.


Subject Categories

Nature and the Environment
American Studies



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