Far from heedless panic, disasters reveal the crowd’s headless intelligence

DISASTERS don’t need leaders. In the blacked out streets of Manhattan this week, after superstorm Sandy hit, traffic is reportedly flowing despite the absence of traffic lights, with drivers behaving more cautiously and coordinating with their fellow road users. It’s the sort of local, spontaneous solution that tends to follow catastrophic events.

Politicians, of course, want us to think otherwise. On Monday President Obama released a photograph of himself monitoring Sandy from the White House, before touring the wreckage in New Jersey on Wednesday. In response, mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg sent a frank RSVP to the President. He told reporters “we’d love to have him, but we’ve got lots to do”.

Disaster response always begins at a local level – no one else can deal with such sudden misfortune. The good news is how effective such bottom-up efforts tend to be. They are accompanied not by the sort of heedless panic that Hollywood and politicians often lead us to expect, but by effective solutions: headless intelligence.

In the aftermath of 9/11, up to 1m people were evacuated from Manhattan by boat. Federal authorities did not take charge until day four – it was an American Dunkirk, a voluntarist flotilla of yachts, ferries, tugs and whatever other boats could be pressed into service, all done with calm and without oversight. When Florida was hit by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, local residents took to the streets of their own accord to direct traffic, while citizen convoys brought supplies to small towns missed by the official relief effort.

Businesses that trust a flatter structure also cope well in disasters. During Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart’s chief executive Lee Scott freed management at all levels to use best judgement rather than wait for approval. As a result, the retailer was getting emergency supplies past roadblocks and into New Orleans within two days, a day before the official federal response began.

Perhaps the most rigorous academic study on this subject has been carried out by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center in its five-year project on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, by scholars including Virgil Storr and Emily Chamlee-Wright. One paper – published by Peter Boettke, Chamlee-Wright et al. in 2007 – reveals how the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in New Orleans East drove its own rebuilding, despite city officials announcing that this would be impossible. It concludes: “A behemoth bureaucracy has proven to be ineffective, whereas the pockets of nimble entrepreneurial responses by actors across the region have often been more effective in rebuilding lives and communities.”

It is not that all help must come from the bottom up, nor that there is no role for local officials and emergency services. But like most things in life, disaster response works best when it understands that, even when the worst happens, effective cooperation is human nature.

First published: City A.M., 1/11/12

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Filed under Business, Freedom, Human nature, Politics

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