Why Ordinary Citizens Are Acting as First Responders in Houston

It’s not necessarily a sign that government has failed—in a disaster as large as Harvey, authorities turn to volunteers like the Cajun Navy by design.

Erich Schlegel / Getty

Harvey hasn’t even finished dumping rain on Texas, but it has already produced an honor roll of heroes.

There is, for example, the video of the boat-owning man telling CNN, “We got eight people that done called for us already. So we’re going to go and get them eight, come on back, and try to save some more.” On a larger scale, there’s the so-called Cajun Navy, a Dunkirk-like mobilization of volunteers in fishing boats and pleasure craft that is out working to rescue people.

The ethos behind these efforts is straightforward and admirable: Some people are in trouble, and other people have the tools to help them. Why wouldn’t they? Clyde Cain, who runs a Cajun Navy Facebook page told USA Today last year, “The reality of the Cajun Navy is everybody out here with a boat that isn’t devastated gets out and helps others.”

While many volunteer rescuers may be acting of their own volition, the federal government is welcoming their help and encouraging others to jump in too. “This is a landmark event for Texas. Texas has never seen an event like this,” Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Monday. “What I need the media to do is organize the efforts, to help us organize citizen efforts, to ultimately help Texas. These people are in need.”

That isn’t necessarily a sign that FEMA was unprepared for the hurricane, or that it’s unusually overwhelmed. In fact, the expectation that civilians will spring to action is central to the way federal, state, and local governments approach huge disasters like Harvey. There’s simply no way for those levels of government to marshal the resources fast enough to do all that needs to get done. Roads are impassable; resources are spread out; and manpower is limited.

“When you step back and look at most disasters, you talk about first responders—lights and sirens—that’s bullshit,” Craig Fugate, who headed FEMA during the Obama presidency, told me in 2015. “The first responders are the neighbors, bystanders, the people that are willing to act.”

That underpinned “whole-community response,” the principle around which Fugate organized FEMA during his eight years in office. (Long only recently started on the job, having been confirmed in June.) The basis for whole-community response is that, while the government simply can never provide a response as quickly as needed, a top-down response from the government isn’t the best answer anyway. Local people know much better what they need, and they benefit from being involved.

In a small disaster, it’s true that professional responders can often take care of nearly everything that needs to be done. But the problems with a top-down response became clear during disaster simulations run by the government to help it plan. Imagine a drill that assumes that 6 million people are affected by a hurricane. From one perspective, that means that the government has to deploy enough people to aid all 6 million. But that’s not right at all: While some people will be rendered helpless after a storm, the vast majority will not be passive observers but will be ready and able to help.

“We had almost by default defined the public as a liability,” Fugate said. “We looked at them as, We must take care of them, because they’re victims. But in a catastrophic disaster, why are we discounting them as a resource? Are you telling me there aren’t nurses, doctors, construction people, all kinds of walks of life that have skills that are needed?”

People who have gone through a storm—Fugate was careful to quit referring to them as victims and start calling them survivors—have just gone through a massively disorienting experience, but treating them as powerless hobbles both their own ability to bounce back and the government’s ability to get things back to normal.

“It’s something that responders, whether they’re in the private sector, or they’re volunteer, or they’re in government—it’s this compelling nature that, I want to help them because it makes me feel good. The more I do for them, the better I feel. But, it's not good for them!” Fugate said. “It doesn't really make sense to people: But they need us! They need help. But they also need to be in control.”

The logic of whole-community response—the catch-phrase for this approach—becomes obvious in thinking about a small, acute event like a tornado. Funnel clouds strike with very little warning, and depending on where they hit, they may swamp local emergency-response teams. State and federal government can only move so fast, so even if aid arrives within hours, what happens in between? The answer is that people start helping each other out.

While a hurricane offers a bit more warning—usually at least a couple days—it’s also much larger, and remains unpredictable. Thus citizen assistance is just as necessary, and obviously just as useful, in a case like Harvey. The presence of efforts like the Cajun Navy means that highly trained first responders are freed up to work on the most pressing cases, from an explosion in downtown Houston Monday to the 2,000 critical rescues local police have already completed.

And while government sometimes isn’t able to get to a community fast enough, it has a tendency to get in the way once it’s there. What do people need after a disaster strikes? For one thing, they need basic provisions, like food and water and clothing. Where do they get those things? Well, the government can attempt to marshal resources and move those things in, but private businesses like big-box stores already have all the goods and they have the logistics and supply chains to move them in. When do big-box stores restock? Usually overnight, when people aren’t trying to shop. But first-responders often impose curfews after a disaster, seeking to keep the peace and deter looting. If the curfews keep stores from resupplying, however, people are more cut off from what they need, and they’re more likely to turn to things like looting.

The flip side of all this is what happens when disaster planners don’t account for the community’s role in recovery. One failure of the Hurricane Katrina response, according to some disaster managers, was that FEMA and other agencies only planned up to the limits of their own resources, rather than planning for the maximum damage a disaster might create. That’s a natural error to make—the idea of a storm too great to handle is awful to imagine, but the results are even worse.

If, however, managers think of the community—and not just local officials like firefighters and doctors—as a resource, they both avoid the problem of planning only to their own capacity, and they radically expand the pool of potential first responders.

“The most effective response you’ll get is just a simple request: ‘Once you do all the stuff you’re supposed to do, check on a neighbor,’” Fugate told me. “It’ll save more lives than anything else we can do.”