Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Largest Boatlift in History and It Was Here

So many people remember the evacuation at Dunkirk, when hundreds of private boats crossed the English Channel to rescue trapped soldiers, their backs to the sea and the Nazi troops in front of them. The Dunkirk Boatlift rescued over 300,000 soldiers. But on 9/11 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan.

There was no government plan to evacuate. In fact, the people trapped on Manhattan were trapped because the authorities had shut down mass transit and closed the bridges. People were stuck and afraid. Many had no idea what was going on. All they knew was there was an attack, the Twin Towers were down and the lower part of the island was covered in dirt and dust from the collapse, the air was difficult to breath. And they wanted to go home.

One Coast Guard official, witnessing the throngs of people who had fled to the water's edge put out a radio message. He simply asked the public, the people the politicians don't trust in these circumstances, to help. He urged anyone with a boat to please come to Manhattan and help these people.

And they did, by the hundreds. Yet, when we watch disasters unfold, inevitably the politicians and bureaucrats rush in and try to order the "civilians" to cease all assistance immediately and "leave it to the experts."

I was in San Francisco the day the earthquake hit in 1989. Throughout that day the "civilians" were putting out fires, directing traffic, and shuttling commuters around the city. In addition, they were the ones rescuing people from the collapsed highway and from buildings that had pancaked. They did so while the "professionals" were standing around debating whether to do anything, and, what.  Here is a short documentary about how civilians shuttled 500,000 people out of Manhattan on 9/11.


  1. There goes the only justification for taxation...

  2. I find it best to not overstate the case. What this does show, in my view, is that there is no reason for the state to interfere with, or ban, private relief efforts during disasters.

    But, I don't think very many people would think the only justification for taxation is to deal with disasters. And, a brilliant private effort such as this one does not necessarily mean that govt. efforts have no value. Though I do tend to think govt. efforts are too easily politicized and decisions are made, not on the basis of actual need, but on the basis of what is politically good. So there is a strong case in favor of allowing private efforts without hinderance and there is a second, but weaker, case to exclude the state altogether.

    The good news for the more hard core is that allowing the first to work is the means by which you test the second view.