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September 12, 2012

Survival guide to natural disasters

As extreme weather incidents become increasingly common (even in this country), it’s worth reflecting on how different communities respond, and what factors made the crucial  difference in the aftermath of some of the worst natural disasters in recent years. In some instances, when two communities were faced with precisely the same trauma, the outcomes proved to be significantly different.  The critical issue seems to be which community has the most social capital.


The New York Times, by Daniel P Aldrich, 28.08.12

HURRICANE Isaac, which made landfall in Louisiana recently, not only disrupted the Republican National Convention but also brought back painful memories of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast seven years ago.

In August 2005, my wife and our small children and I evacuated to Houston just before the storm destroyed the New Orleans home we had moved into six weeks earlier. We took with us just a bag of toys and a suitcase. We applied for federal aid, but especially in the immediate aftermath, it was family, friends and friends-of-friends who came through for us.

As a political scientist (I taught at Tulane at the time), I decided to study how communities respond to natural disasters. I’ve concluded that the density and strength of social networks are the most important variables – not wealth, education or culture – in determining their resilience in the face of catastrophe.

Take, for example, the densely populated region around Kobe, Japan, where an earthquake struck on Jan. 17, 1995, setting off more than 200 fires and killing 6,400 people. In the neighborhood of Mano, local residents self-organized into a bucket brigade and doused the flames, while in nearby Mikura, residents stood by helplessly as the fires destroyed their homes and businesses. The residents of the two inner-city neighborhoods were of roughly the same age and social class. But residents of Mano had forged bonds of trust through civic and voluntary activities, including efforts to combat pollution, while Mikura’s communal experiences were far more limited.

Similarly, after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, rural coastal villages in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu followed very different arcs of recovery. From survivors in the temporary shelters around the city of Nagapattinam, I learned that the villages that had formed and maintained relationships with local government officials and foreign aid workers – in many cases, via women who spoke at least a little English – were able to secure disaster relief more quickly, and distribute it more efficiently, than equally poor villages that did not have outgoing and well-connected residents.

The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown around Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011 also demonstrated the importance of social capital. Those who were able to flee (often with help from neighbors and friends) moved in with people they knew rather than into the public shelters. While some towns offered incentives to lure back former residents, many who returned did not apply for aid because of onerous paperwork rules. Instead, they told me, they came back to re-establish friendships and daily routines.

Social scientists know that communities that are relatively homogeneous, with honest government and a history of cooperation and civic engagement, have deeper reservoirs of social capital. I would argue that even in diverse countries like the United States, social capital can be built, not just passively acquired.

First, whether in small towns or big cities, there are always people who choose to go the extra mile to get to know their neighbors – an inexpensive tactic that builds social capital – while others are content to hunker down.

Second, local governments and community associations can follow the example of Japan, which gives money to local communities to hold “matsuri,” or small-scale festivals, so that neighbors – including shut-ins and the elderly – can get out and meet one another. Officials in cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Santa Barbara, Calif., have put on such events as part of disaster preparedness.

Third, civic engagement can be enhanced through structured discussions. Teams led by researchers from Harvard and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine convened focus groups in Nicaragua and South Africa of people who had never met to debate issues like youth literacy, women’s rights and AIDS prevention. The meetings enhanced members’ trust in the other group members, as well as in society and the government more generally. Politically engaged residents plug into existing institutions.

Finally, there is evidence that “community currency” programs, which reward volunteers with an alternative currency that is accepted by local merchants, deepen social networks. 

 A successful form of community currency, also called complementary currency,  was used in the impoverished city of  Curitiba, Brazil. In the 1970s, garbage piled up in shantytowns where the streets were too narrow for trash trucks.   There was no money for a physical fix, so officials offered residents bus tokens and plastic chits exchangeable for food and other goods if they brought garbage to bins placed outside the neighborhoods.  Eventually, more than 70 percent of households participated, an under-used bus system prospered, improved transportation increased employment, the neighborhood was clean,  recycling increased, children had school supplies and improved nutrition, and general health and quality of live got better, all with minimal cash outlay.    

Research in Japan has shown that residents of communities with such programs had greater trust in their government officials than other residents did.

Just as the focus of Western development aid to poor countries has shifted from roads, power plants and factories to productivity, skills and entrepreneurship, so should the field of disaster recovery focus on enhancing resilience – people power – not just physical infrastructure.

There’s no doubt that speedy, efficient distribution of emergency shelter, food, medical care and clothing are among the essential responsibilities of government. But at a time of scarcity, with governments and charities facing financial strain, a focus on the social infrastructure of vulnerable communities may be the best (and most cost-effective) survival strategy.