Read: Why ordinary citizens are acting as first responders in Houston
There are stories of civilians helping each other after every big disaster, but 2017’s Hurricane Harvey produced an indelible example with the Cajun Navy, a half–Good Samaritan and half-lunatic volunteer force that went out in personal boats to rescue people. While some observers held up the prominence of the Cajun Navy as an example of governmental failures, emergency managers have, in recent years, begun to factor such efforts into their calculations about how to handle major crises.
“When you step back and look at most disasters, you talk about first responders—lights and sirens—that’s bullshit,” the former FEMA director Craig Fugate told me in 2015. “The first responders are the neighbors, bystanders, the people that are willing to act.”
In part, this emphasis on neighbors helping one another is simple realism. In a big enough disaster, no state or federal agency can move all the resources people will need into an area immediately, especially if critical infrastructure such as roads and communications networks are destroyed. In part, it’s a realization that though a storm is devastating, it’s not often annihilating, and some of what people need is already on the ground. And in part, it’s designed to empower people after a storm. Fugate led a charge to stop referring to them as “victims,” with its implication of helplessness, and refer to them instead as “survivors.” Incorporating them into the formal relief plans returns their agency.
The importance of people helping one another, whether they’re semi-organized teams like the Cajun Navy or just individuals checking on an elderly neighbor, means that the best determinant of how well a community fares in a storm is often not what happens after landfall, but what it was like before the wind and water hit.
“We know what makes people safer in disasters is close social networks, more equality in the community, and having high social capital,” says Jacob Remes, a historian and disaster scholar at NYU. “The sort of work you have to do to build communities that will do well in disaster, you can’t do in the days or the week before the disaster. You have to be doing them all the time.”
That means places that have bustling public spaces, walkable streetscapes, lower crime, and better housing stock tend to fare better, because people are more likely to know their neighbors and consequently feel an obligation to them.
“Because of segregation by race and class, the communities that tend to have these physical aspects that make them safer are also where people who are richer and better educated and whiter live,” Remes says. That means other demographic groups are more vulnerable when storms hit—though there are plenty of examples of poorer but tight-knit communities reacting effectively in places such as post-Katrina New Orleans.