The Key To Disaster Survival? Friends And Neighbors

July 04, 2011
Shankar Vedantam
Publication: 
National Public Radio (NPR)

Read transcript of interview >> 

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, one victim was political scientist Daniel Aldrich. He had just moved to New Orleans. Late one August night, there was a knock on the door.

"It was a neighbor who knew that we had no idea of the realities of the Gulf Coast life," said Aldrich, who is now a political scientist at Purdue University in Indiana. He "knocked on our door very late at night, around midnight on Saturday night, and said, 'Look, you've got small kids — you should really leave.' "

The knock on the door was to prove prophetic. It changed the course of Aldrich's research and, in turn, is changing the way many experts now think about disaster preparedness.

Officials in New Orleans that Saturday night had not yet ordered an evacuation, but Aldrich trusted the neighbor who knocked on his door. He bundled his family into a car and drove to Houston.

"Without that information we never would've left," Aldrich said. I think we would've been trapped."

In fact, by the time people were told to leave, it was too late and thousands of people got stuck.

Because of his own experience in Katrina, Aldrich started thinking about how neighbors help one another during disasters. He decided to visit disaster sites around the world, looking for data.

Aldrich's findings show that ambulances and firetrucks and government aid are not the principal ways most people survive during — and recover after — a disaster. His data suggest that while official help is useful — in clearing the water and getting the power back on in a place such as New Orleans after Katrina, for example — government interventions cannot bring neighborhoods back, and most emergency responders take far too long to get to the scene of a disaster to save many lives. Rather, it is the personal ties among members of a community that determine survival during a disaster, and recovery in its aftermath.

When Aldrich visited villages in India hit by the giant 2004 tsunami, he found that villagers who fared best after the disaster weren't those with the most money, or the most power. They were people who knew lots of other people — the most socially connected individuals. In other words, if you want to predict who will do well after a disaster, you look for faces that keep showing up at all the weddings and funerals.

...

"Get more involved in neighborhood events," Aldrich said. "If there is a planning club, a homeowners association — if there are sports clubs nearby, PTAs — those groups have us in contact with people we wouldn't normally meet and help us build up these stocks of trust and reciprocity."
 

"Really, at the end of the day, the people who will save you, and the people who will help you," he added, "they're usually neighbors."

 

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Thanks to Mark Juedeman who shared this episode on our facebook wall. He writes, "A member of our Transition Houston group shared this; Transition is never mentioned but this goes to the heart of what we are about."

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