As I write this, meteorologists predict that Hurricane Florence could hover over populated areas of North and South Carolina, potentially becoming one of the major dangerous storms over the past two decades. Some envision that, beyond loss of life, the hurricane could cause more than $170 billion worth of property damage. Weather observers and disaster managers have started issuing calls for preparation. Get several days worth of food and water, they say, and make sure that you have gas in your vehicle. While this approach is certainly time-tested and has its merits, my own research and experience have convinced me it is, at best, half the story.
Although we’re often told to prepare to meet our own needs, survival and recovery do not happen in isolation. Instead, our social networks—the friends, neighbors, and family whom we interact with—influence our ability to get through a crisis and then bounce back from it.
Since my family and I lost all of our material possessions in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I’ve spent time around the world studying how communities and institutions can make it through earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes, among other disasters. I saw that our own family’s recovery in New Orleans had little to do with the state—that is, aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other agencies—and also little to do with the market: that is, private insurance. We didn’t have time to set up insurance on our home, and FEMA rejected our initial claims for assistance. What kept us afloat, gave us new clothing and toys for the kids, put us in a new place to stay, and offered me a place to work was our network of friends and friends of friends. These ties, often called social capital, assist survivors around the world facing crisis.
My students and I have been looking into the power of networks even before disasters strike. We know that one of the best ways to be safe in a predictable disaster—whether fire or flood, hurricane or drought—is to leave vulnerable areas before the danger arrives. But oftentimes people don’t leave despite warnings and mandatory evacuation orders from disaster managers and government officials. Other researchers have argued that evacuation is driven by a set of demographic factors, including age, gender, the presence or absence of children, and wealth. But a new study, written together with my colleagues Danaë Metaxa-Kakavouli of Stanford University and Paige Maas of Facebook, argues that social connections have a heavy influence on evacuation behavior. Using anonymized information about where Facebook users went before three major hurricanes in North America, we saw that those with the broadest and most diverse networks were most likely to leave a vulnerable location before the storm arrived. Those who relied heavily on close friends and family were less likely to do so.
Social networks also matter when a crisis actually arrives. A quantitative study that my colleague Yasuyuki Sawada and I carried out after the triple disasters in Japan on March 11, 2001—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown—showed that the levels of communal trust and cohesion were critical predictors of survival. Living in an active community where people knew and trusted one another was among the most important factors in surviving the tsunami. This was especially true for the vulnerable and elderly who could not evacuate their coastal home in the 40 minutes between the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami. Reviewing the mortality rates for more than 140 cities, our team found that those communities with the lowest mortality rates were precisely the ones with more trust, holding constant factors including the height of the wave, the age of the residents, coastal exposure, evacuation accessibility, and population density. Those in wheelchairs and beds needed someone who knew them, who knew that they were home or in a hospital bed, and who was willing to come get them out as the tsunami approached. No police officer, no fireman, and no government official could save those who needed help. Only concerned friends, neighbors, and kin could get to the most vulnerable in time to save lives.
Similarly, one of my students, Courtney Page, has looked at how informal, local networks saved lives during Hurricane Harvey. In Houston, as rain continued to fall and flood waters began to choke off streets and ruin houses, many people became trapped in their home. Although they reached out to 911 to ask for rescue, the service flooded—literally and metaphorically. Unable to reach the authorities through standard channels, many Houston residents turned instead to social-media platforms such as Nextdoor. Giving their address or that of their parents or elderly neighbors, Houstonians reached out to anyone with a connection to the internet. Many with boats, including volunteer groups such as the Cajun Navy, used that information to rescue people trapped in homes and on roofs.
We’ve also looked at how social networks play a role in long-term mental-health resilience. Shocks of all kind throw us out of our normal routine. In the most extreme cases of mandatory evacuation and major damage, residents may have to leave jobs, homes, and familiarity behind for days, if not weeks, months, and even years. People who lived near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plants in Japan, for example, are still not back in their home more than 7 years after the meltdowns. Our team interviewed these Japanese evacuees looking for patterns which could explain how they handle the stresses they feel about their health, job, and home. More than wealth or health, it was having neighbors with whom they kept in contact as they built a new life and found employment that reduced their stress.
Given the power of social ties before, during, and after crisis, there are a number of public policies that the United States should be pursuing to build more resilient communities. First, it’s important to ensure that we don’t damage existing networks through interventions such as random-evacuation procedures, as happened during Hurricane Katrina. Some survivors with whom I spoke didn’t know to which town their bus was heading until it stopped in Arkansas. Move people together, keep them together, and help them talk and stay connected.
But resilience also requires strengthening such social ties long before disaster hits. Programs such as Neighborfest, run by San Francisco’s Neighborhood Empowerment Network, and local community centers, such as the Ibasho program run in Japan’s Masaki-cho, bring people together, encourage them to build ties and connections, and help generate collective action and trust. As storms like Hurricane Florence will only become more regular and more powerful in an era of global climate change, we should be doing all we can to move away from individualized approaches to disaster preparation. Our resilient futures will come from social ties and networks.