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There's a Sociological Explanation for Why People Rush in to Help Communities Struck by Disaster

"Mass assault" may sound like a felony, but it's actually an exercise in mass healing.
A resident walks from her flooded house toward the crew of the Cajun Navy in Lumberton, North Carolina, on September 15th, 2018, in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

A resident walks from her flooded house toward the crew of the Cajun Navy in Lumberton, North Carolina, on September 15th, 2018, in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

It's a popular myth that when disasters strike, people become looting, panicking, clown-trampling George Costanzas. In reality, we're more likely to rush in to help others than run them over to save ourselves—so much so that emergency managers have a name for it: "mass assault."

Identified in 1969 by researcher Allen Barton, mass assault refers to the many people who flood a disaster area, including medical workers, profiteers, and families searching for missing relatives. Most, though, are helpers—people from both the affected community and outside it, hoping to be useful.

The sheer numbers involved are often massive: More than 12,000 people volunteered to help in clean-up and recovery after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; more than 30,000 people volunteered after the September 11th attacks in New York City. After Hurricane Katrina, 60,000.

As Hurricane Florence made its slow commando crawl toward the Carolinas and more than a million people were ordered to evacuate, thousands of others moved in. The most visible were with American Red Cross, which sent in 3,600 disaster relief workers to set up shelters, serve meals, treat wounds, and counsel the distraught.

But they are far from alone. The all-volunteer Cajun Navy sent 1,000 people with their boats, who have been pulling flood victims from rooftops, attics, and stranded cars. A few hundred military veterans with groups like Team Rubicon from California and Sheep Dog Impact Assistance from Arkansas have been removing debris and gutting moldy homes. Operation BBQ Relief partnered with the Salvation Army to serve more than 82,000 meals in five days.

The volunteers working with those groups tend to be trained long before a disaster strikes, but not everyone who runs toward disaster does so as part of a team. We saw this before Florence made landfall: Shelter workers stranded on Interstate-95 with a broken-down van full of evacuated dogs and cats put a single post on Facebook, asking if anyone in the area could stop by with an air conditioned car, to help cool off the animals. More than 55 people showed up, with not only cars, but food, water, and tools. A mechanic tried to fix their busted alternator, while a nearby rescue loaned its own animal-transport van to the stranded group for free.

An assault is what it can feel like when so many people descend on a hobbled community, and mass assaults do bring their own problems, from traffic jams to safety threats. Civilians with shovels or boats or buckets have saved countless lives and hauled off tons of debris, but they can also sometimes stumble into danger and require rescuing themselves. It's why you often see warnings from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies in the run-up to a disaster saying, "Please do not self-deploy."

Yet we count on these civilian volunteers. If you're stuck on a roof during a flood, you're more likely to be rescued by the Cajun Navy than the National Guard. In New Bern, North Carolina, a town of about 30,000, two official swift-water rescue teams saved about 300 people trapped by post-Florence flooding; the Cajun Navy saved another 150. In 1995 after the Great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, Japan, as many as 90 percent of survivors trapped under rubble were freed by civilians.

And people who come together during a mass assault often create permanent organizations that last through the recovery and beyond, including some of the groups now responding to Florence. The Cajun Navy began when boaters responded to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans; Operation BBQ Relief started when competition barbecue teams from eight states showed up to feed survivors of the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri.

Mass assaults can lead to the creation of organizations that are not disaster-focused too. In New Orleans, Katrina volunteers eventually founded Propeller, a business accelerator that supports companies and non-profits focused on wiping out social and environmental inequality.

Sociologists once debated whether post-catastrophe volunteerism is more common in places with stronger traditions of community or altruism. But more than 30 years of research—exploring disasters in Europe, Asia, and the Americas—confirmed that mass assaults break out wherever disaster strikes, because the need to help is universal.

And it is a need. Disasters don't just stir empathy within us; they also inflame a feeling of powerlessness, whether we're directly in the path of the hurricane, or watching safely from a distance. Saving lives, clearing debris, and rebuilding neighborhoods allows us to restore not only a community, but also our own emotional well-being. Mass assault may sound like a felony, but in practice, it's the opposite—it's an exercise in mass healing.