The Secret to Surviving a Disaster Could Start Next Door

The Secret to Surviving a Disaster Could Start Next Door

Residents sift through debris in search of their belongings in Natori, Japan in 2011.

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Why you should care

Because you and your neighbors can help each other more in a crisis than the government.

In March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Japan, washing over seawalls and surging up to six miles inland. By the time the floodwaters receded, more than 18,000 people were dead or missing. Post-disaster research shows that some towns and fishing villages suffered mortality rates of up to 11 percent. But in communities where residents took charge of their own response, helping family members and elderly neighbors to safety on higher ground, there was almost no loss of life.

In an era when man-made and natural disasters seem to occur with greater intensity and frequency, emergency prep and response have become complex. A terrorist attack or a flood sets complicated machinery in motion — in the U.S., that can include local police and fire departments, regional and state emergency centers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Coast Guard, the National Guard, the Red Cross and other NGOs. There’s an emerging trend, however, to increase the efficiency of emergency readiness with what’s known as social capital. What that means is making communities more resilient through neighbor-to-neighbor connections — the kind that saved lives in Japan.

Communities that are more cohesive feel more prepared for a disaster.

Prof. Daniel Aldrich, director, Security and Resilience Studies Program, Northeastern University

Looking out for your neighbors in times of trouble — it seems obvious, but investing in social capital is not a priority in many communities. Policy makers often find it easier to fund more tangible disaster-prep assets — another fire truck, more robust levees, an emergency coordinating office. And yet neighbors helping neighbors accounts for 80 percent of rescues during an emergency, according to Daniel Neely, community resilience manager of the Wellington Region Emergency Management Office (WREMO) in New Zealand.

The overarching theme of social capital is self-reliance — empowering communities to need less help from governments. In a survey of residents in a dozen towns walloped by Hurricane Sandy, which struck coastal New Jersey and New York in 2012, more than two-thirds of respondents cited neighbors as their primary source of help in recovering from the storm, as opposed to local and federal agencies. After Boulder, Colorado, took a double hit from a forest fire in 2010 and flooding in 2013, the mountain community set up a civilian network of HAM radio operators to help maintain emergency communications and a local social network called Nextdoor, which coordinates the bartering of goods and services during a crisis.

One of the major initiatives in this grassroots movement is called 100 Resilient Cities, which is funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — two large, decidedly hierarchical organizations. The program aims to bolster the response to disasters and long-term threats and improve everyday living standards in major urban areas. The focus on cities may seem like a misdirection for bottom-up community building, but according to Prof. Daniel Aldrich, director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University, neighborhoods in New Orleans with both “horizontal and vertical” social networks recovered more effectively from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although Katrina often is presented as a textbook case of FEMA’s ineptness, what is more significant is that rapid responses by self-organizing civilian volunteers and vertical organizations, most notably the Coast Guard and Navy, resulted in a dramatically reduced casualty rate.

According to Aldrich, “communities that are more cohesive feel more prepared for a disaster.” But what about fragmented, marginalized communities, which often suffer disproportionately from disasters? To address that issue in Boston, the city’s chief resiliency officer works across community lines to connect socioeconomically disadvantaged groups with historic mistrust of government. In Porirua, New Zealand, it meant finding a way to incorporate the city’s large indigenous population into emergency planning. When local leaders invited Rebecca Jackson from WREMO to join them for an aerobics class, she jumped at the opportunity to gain access to a typically closed group. Through that initial contact, Jackson was invited to coordinate emergency response with a local Seventh Day Adventist church. With Jackson’s help, the congregation distributed emergency kits just days before a major earthquake rocked the area in November 2016.

The key to it all is trust. Without it, says Andrew Notbohm, an emergency management coordinator in Boulder, “you can’t go anywhere with resiliency in a community.” Given the strained budgets and populist sentiments sweeping the globe today, it’s good to know that trust can’t be bought, and friendship can save your life.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the local social network in Boulder, Colorado, used for bartering goods and services during a crisis is called MyNeighbor. The correct name of the social network is Nextdoor.

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