Key to coping with disasters: neighbors

Published 6 July 2011

A political scientist who had moved to New Orleans only weeks before Hurricane Katrina concluded that neighbors — and cooperation among neighbors — are more important for surviving, coping with, and recovering from disasters than ambulances and fire trucks and government aid; to make sure his observations were more than anecdotal, he visited disaster areas around the world, and his data show that his personal experiences reflect a larger truth

Political scientist Daniel Aldrich had just moved to New Orleans — a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck.

His own experience in Katrina got Aldrich thinking about how neighbors could — and do — help one another during disasters. Being a scholar, he decided to visit disaster sites around the world, looking for data, talking with local people, and comparing their experiences with his own.

NPR reports that Aldrich’s findings show that ambulances and fire trucks and government aid may be important, but that they are not the principal ways most people survive during — and recover after — a disaster. Official help is useful — for example, in clearing the water and getting the power back on in a place such as New Orleans after Katrina — but his data show that government interventions cannot bring neighborhoods back, and most emergency responders take too long to get to the scene of a disaster to save many lives. It is rather the personal ties among members of a community that determine survival during a disaster, and recovery in its aftermath.

NPR notes that Aldrich thinks each of us can do something on our own: Instead of practicing earthquake drills and building bunkers, we could reach out and make more friends among our co-workers and neighbors.

Get more involved in neighborhood events,” Aldrich told NPR. “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.”