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Social Trust Predicts Better Disaster Recovery

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 30, 2012

When it comes to coping with catastrophe, the density and strength of social networks is more important than wealth, education, or culture, according to a political scientist whose research on the topic was animated by personal experience.

As Gulf Coast residents struggle with flood and destruction from Hurricane Isaac, Daniel P. Aldrich is reminded of the seven year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. He’s an associate professor of pubic policy at Purdue University who was teaching at Tulane in 2005. He and his family evacuated to Houston right before their New Orleans home was destroyed. He decided to study how communities respond to calamity, and he writes about his findings in a New York Times column "How to Weather a Hurricane."

An earthquake struck the region around Kobe, Japan, in 1995, killing 6,400 people and setting more than 200 fires. In Mano, residents self organized a bucket brigade to fight fires. In nearby Mikura, people watched in horror as their homes and businesses burned. Residents of these two urban neighborhoods were similar in age and economic class, but Mano residents had forged social bonds and trust through civic and volunteer activities, including collective efforts to fight pollution. Mikura residents lacked that history.

Aldrich found something similar in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that impacted 13 countries, killed a quarter of a million people, and left two million homeless. He learned from people in the city of Nagapattinam that villages where residents had formed and maintained relationships with local officials and foreign aid workers recovered better than equally impoverished villages where residents did not have those relationships. The restorative value of social capital also showed up in the aftermath of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown around Fukushima, Japan in 2011, he reports.

He argues that social doesn’t always happen naturally, but it can be built. The Japanese government sponsors Matsuris, or local festivals, where people gather and meet one another. He says some US cities have sponsored such local events as part of disaster preparedness. A "Sister Cities" initiative in Seattle and San Francisco is enabling local officials to share disaster preparedness ideas and experiences with officials in similar cities in China, Korea and Vietnam. Aldrich also asserts that "community currency" programs, which reward volunteers with tokens that can be traded for goods and services, have been shown to strengthen social networks.

A successful form of community currency, also called complementary currency, was used in the impoverished city of Curitiba, Brazil. In the 1970s, garbage piled up in shantytowns where the streets were too narrow for trash trucks. There was no money for a physical fix, so officials offered residents bus tokens and plastic chits exchangeable for food and other goods if they brought garbage to bins placed outside the neighborhoods. Eventually, more than 70 percent of households participated, an under-used bus system prospered, improved transportation increased employment, the neighborhood was clean, recycling increased, children had school supplies and improved nutrition, and general health and quality of live got better, all with minimal cash outlay.

Aldrich is the author of Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster RecoveryListen to his lecture here and learn what voter turnout says about social capital and coping in disaster.

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