Andrew Mitchell helps his neighbor Beverly Johnson onto a rescue boat to escape the rising flood waters from Hurricane Harvey Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Communities and spontaneous volunteers are the real first line of response in the wake of natural disasters.

A caravan of National Guard vehicles. Large Navy ships swooping in. Organized teams of EMTs and firefighters barreling down. These are the organizations we typically imagine coming to the rescue during large-scale natural disasters.

In reality, the real responders are typically groups of local people who self-organize to help one another survive such massive calamities. In Hurricane Harvey’s wake, it was the flotilla of boats that went door to door, neighborhood by neighborhood wresting people and their pets from harm’s way.

So consumed are we with the large-scale, technical responses to disaster—everything from FEMA and federal emergency response and disaster relief to the need for more and better infrastructure and resilience plans—that we forget the very first line of response is us: regular people who step up to help their communities.

While most of the research on responding to large-scale disasters focuses on coordinated fixes and professional responses, a recent study, published in Environment & Urbanization, takes a close look at the role of people and communities in self-organizing in disaster response. The study is based on a comprehensive review of 120 academic studies and research reports on community responses in the wake of significant disasters. The study covers both disasters in affluent countries like the United States and Europe, and those that ravage less affluent and less developed places with fewer resources and less developed infrastructure.  

The big take-away is that community residents acting on their own impulses and initiative actually dominate rescue and recovery efforts, particularly in the immediate aftermath of disaster. That’s because our human reaction is to help one another. We can—and do—depend on one another to survive large-scale disasters.

The study dubs these local responders as “emergent groups” and “spontaneous volunteers.” These are groups of neighbors, strangers, and local businesses that band together in disaster scenarios. Sometimes it’s neighbors helping one another, other times it’s local organizations—like a restaurant or a women’s shelter—extending their regular operations to meet increased need. As the study documents, while looting and criminal activity sometimes occurs during disasters, the altruistic impulses and activities of self-organizing volunteer groups people is far more typical.

The defining characteristic of these emergent groups is that they are new – they did not exist prior to the disaster. Their collective activity did not exist before, the relationships between the composite members are new, and the individuals are performing tasks that are unplanned and unanticipated. Though spontaneous volunteers usually emerge from affected areas, they can also arrive from nearby towns or even from long distances. Indeed, these self-organizing volunteer groups take on varied and different forms shaped by the type of disaster and the place it occurs.

The unpredictable nature of many natural disasters—like earthquakes, for example—means that organized emergency services cannot prepare ahead of time. As a result, the scale of these volunteer efforts is considerable. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan—a disaster which prompted what the study calls a “renaissance of volunteerism”—an estimated 60 to 90 percent of people trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings were rescued by locals before emergency aid arrived, making up an estimated range of 630,000-1.4 million volunteers.

Similarly, after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the response was dominated by the independent actions of many hundreds of groups: an estimated two million people, 10 percent of the city’s entire population took part in voluntary recovery efforts of some kind. In the U.S., after the 9/11 attacks, between 30,000 and 40,000 spontaneous volunteers arrived at Ground Zero to lend a hand, and the Red Cross received 22,000 offers of assistance during the first two and a half weeks after the disaster.

Emergent volunteer groups dominate the immediate search and rescue effort, helping to recover their fellow civilians from the rubble of collapsed buildings, cut back trees, and pilot boats through flooded streets to locate those who are trapped in harm’s way. In most disaster scenarios, the majority of lives are saved in the 24 hours following the event. This is the period during which formal search and rescue services can struggle to arrive—especially if a region is relying on international SAR teams.

But the efforts of spontaneous volunteers go far beyond search and rescue. They span the full gamut of emergency response, from providing psychological support to members of their community as after the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran; to filling sandbags, or providing meals to neighbors in need to free up higher-level emergency aid staff to carry our more skilled response activities. Local volunteers also have the benefit of intimately understanding the layout of their towns and neighborhoods, as well as an awareness of the usual habits of the people who live in them.  

The motivation to become part of spontaneous volunteer efforts varies between disasters as much as it does between cultures and communities. People who are personally affected by disasters—those whose families or neighbors are directly affected—are the most likely to lend a hand. Likely for this reason, areas with high levels of damage seem to inspire large groups of people to participate in recovery efforts.

Many of these volunteer groups are motivated by cultures of responsibility to community or society, and by the social capital that comes with acting similarly to one’s peers.

For these reasons, spontaneous volunteer groups transcend regular social networks to provide the immediate service that coordinated disaster aid professionals cannot. But emergent groups can present challenges as well.

Spontaneous volunteers can struggle to integrate and communicate with official response efforts. They can also fall victim to health and safety issues that more coordinated relief professionals avoid. When volunteers swarm a disaster site with supplies and vehicles, congestion can hinder the entrance of formal emergency responders.

Such was the case during the 2008 Wenchaun earthquake in China. The authors cite a Chinese government official, who explained that: “Anyone who had a van was trying to deliver materials to these places. It got very chaotic as the troops who were supposed to be doing relief efforts ended up taking care of the unorganized volunteers.”

By examining spontaneous community responses, we can learn how to better employ self-organizing groups as a critical resource in disaster recovery. This can help make disaster response more efficient across the globe. Indeed, the mass volunteerism in Kobe led Japan to reform its national disaster planning and legislation, which volunteers began to acknowledge as a resource thereafter. It also led to a National Disaster Prevention and Volunteer Day, which now happens annually on September 1. And in China—a country that has historically low rates of independent volunteers—researchers suggest that the efforts of spontaneous volunteers during the Wenchuan earthquake helped build greater trust and coordination between government and self-organizing groups.

Digital technology can be an additional resource, and many enterprising individual volunteers have in recent disasters used social media, cell phones, and other technology to aid the disaster effort. In the future, data collected through digital technology can be parsed and studied to help self-organizers coordinate more effectively.

When it comes to how humans respond to disasters, self-organizing, community-based groups are the first line of defense in rescue and survival. It is imperative we learn more about them and how to best mobilize, coordinate, and harness their incredible—and incredibly human—efforts.

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