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.