Home Disaster Preparedness REALOMETER DISPATCH #7: Two articles about community networking and effective disaster response

REALOMETER DISPATCH #7: Two articles about community networking and effective disaster response


How to Weather a Hurricane

Published: August 28, 2012
From the The New Yorker Magazine - Read online

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

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, each of us can follow the example of Fred Rogers. 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. 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.

Daniel P. Aldrich, an associate professor of public policy at Purdue University, is the author of “Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on August 29, 2012, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Weather a Hurricane.

Daniel P. Aldrich, an associate professor of public policy at Purdue University, is the author of "Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery."


ADAPTATION – How can cities be “climate-proofed” ?

From the New York Times - NYTIMES.com - Read online

DEPT. OF URBAN PLANNING about “climate-proofing.” For the past decade and a half, governments around the world have been investing in elaborate plans to “climate-proof” their cities-protecting people, businesses, and critical infrastructure against weather-related calamities. Much of this work involves upgrading what engineers call “lifeline systems”: the network infrastructure for power, transit, and communications, which are crucial in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Some of the solutions are capital-intensive and high-tech; some are low- or no-tech approaches, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them. Even if we managed to stop increasing global carbon emissions tomorrow, we would probably experience several centuries of additional warming, rising sea levels, and more frequent dangerous weather events. If our cities are to survive, we have no choice but to adapt. Writer speaks with Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University. Genuine adaptation, Jacob believes, means preparing for the inevitable deluge. “The ocean is going to reclaim what we took from it,” he said. He thinks that New York can learn from Rotterdam, which has a long history of flooding. After enduring a devastating storm surge in 1953, Rotterdam began building a series of dams, barriers, and seawalls. It’s now experimenting with an architecture of accommodation: it has a floating pavilion in the city center, made of three silver half spheres with an exhibition space that’s equivalent to four tennis courts, and buildings whose façades, garages, and ground-level spaces are engineered to be waterproof. It also has a resilient power grid, designed to withstand strong winds and heavy rain, with power lines which are primarily underground and encased in water-resistant pipes. The island nation of Singapore offers other lessons. Singapore began adapting to dangerous weather thirty years ago, after a series of heavy rains during monsoon season caused repeated flooding in the low-lying city center. Mentions Singapore’s Marina Barrage and Reservoir, which opened in 2008. Still, a strategy of resilience will involve more than changes to our physical infrastructure. Increasingly, governments and disaster planners are recognizing the importance of social infrastructure: the people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support. “There’s a lot of social-science research showing how much better people do in disasters, how much longer they live, when they have good social networks and connections,” says Nicole Lurie, a former professor of health policy who has been President Obama’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response since 2009. Discusses, at length, the case of a deadly 1995 heat wave in Chicago, during which people living in neighborhoods with stronger social networks fared better than people who lived in comparable, but less socially cohesive, neighborhoods. Since 1995, officials in Chicago have begun to take these factors into account. City agencies have maintained a database that lists the names, addresses, and phone numbers of old, chronically ill, and otherwise vulnerable people, and city workers call or visit to make sure they’re safe. Writer travels to Rockaway, Queens, where the Rockaway Beach Surf Club has become the main community organization, providing food, cleaning supplies, camaraderie, and manual labor for nearby residents after Hurricane Sandy. Discusses the likely costs of infrastructure investments, and how those costs compare to the investments which were made, after September 11th, to guard against terrorism. Discusses the arguments for and against large-scale projects such as seawalls and other barriers. Mentions how “climate-proofing” investments might benefit communities in other, non-disaster-related ways.

Eric Klinenberg, Dept. of Urban Planning, “Adaptation,” The New Yorker, January 7, 2013, p. 32

The Haitian Resource Development Foundation prioritizes programs that enable and empower various Haitian locales to further personal and collective independence. Engaging in a range of programs over 20 years, the HRDF continues a commitment to providing measurable results for program beneficiaries and program benefactors. Working with multiple international partners from North America and Europe, the HRDF is committed to fundamental improvements in Haitian villages to ensure greater economic vitality in the near future.