Responding to Hurricane Sandy Needs More than Engineering, It Needs Social Capital

1.8.2013 |  A belated happy new year to BRR readers. Hope your holiday break was a restful one. While on break, I caught up on some reading, including a fantastic article by Eric Klinenberg in the New Yorker on Hurricane Sandy’s effects. The story caught my eye because of its focus on an aspect of disasters (and resilience to them) that is often overlooked: social capital.  It is that set of connections in neighborhoods, Klinenberg, a sociologist by trade, argues, that make or break a community’s response to a disaster. 

Klinenberg opens with an equally horrific natural disaster– the 1995 heat wave in Chicago that claimed seven times as many lives (but not nearly the sheer damage as Sandy of course). In that torpid July, the heat was unrelenting. Chicago had a string of days in the 100s, with nights where the temperature barely dropped below 85. I was living in a second-story apartment with no air conditioning at the time. The electricity would go out for hours, often in the middle of the night. The heat would envelope the room within minutes of the fan falling silent. It was dreadful.

But my neighborhood on the north side of the city had it better than most.  As Klinenberg — who also wrote the acclaimed book on the disaster, “Heat Wave”–  points out, Chicago remains a very segregated city, and the predominantly poor, African-American population on the city’s South Side suffered the greatest losses of life in the heat wave, mainly because so many lacked air conditioning, but also because many residents felt unsafe opening their windows, especially at night. (An aside: here’s a great short video of just how segregated the city is, by Dan Weissman. He points his camera inside the Red Line on the el, as it moves from the white north side to the black south side.)

But beyond this all-too-familiar story was something else. The deaths on the South Side weren’t evenly spaced. Englewood, for example, reported 33 deaths per 100,000 residents. But its neighbor, Auburn Gresham– equally poor, also 99% black with equal numbers of elderly– reported only 3 deaths per 100,000.

What made the difference, Klinenberg finds, was the social capital on the ground in Auburn Gresham. As he writes, it was the “sidewalks, stores, restaurants  and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors” that mattered. Residents in the neighborhood knew who was alone, who was aging, sick, or vulnerable, and they checked in on them. “It’s what we do when it’s very hot or very cold here,” a longtime resident said. It was also the web of community organizations stitched together from these daily one-on-one interactions between neighbors that made a difference.

Likewise in Queens and Rockaway after Sandy. On the ground there, Klinenberg found, was a vibrant network of volunteers and residents who took charge and stepped up to make sure people were safe and fed. Michael Greenberg, writing at the New York Review of Books in “Occupy the Rockaways!” found the same thing.

“During the critical days immediately following the storm, with Rockaway’s subway tracks washed away, gas shortages impeding road access, and all the government disaster relief agencies still scrambling to find their footing, the main help cam from local volunteers. ..The volunteers had become, a professional relief worker admiringly told me, ‘the main act.’”

The ability to come together to respond to disasters and then to rebuild–resilience, in other words– does not happen spontaneously. It is cultivated through years of trust between neighbors. It is cultivated by a sense of ownership in a block or larger neighborhood. It is cultivated when the quid come regularly with a quo. It is cultivated when people are able to look beyond their immediate needs to a larger sense of shared goals and purpose. It is that form of social capital that allows us to quickly corral neighbors, to turn churches, temples, and synagogues into shelters and food distributors, to respond before even the first-responders arrive.

Sandy will forever change how New York prepares for the next hurricane or rising sea levels, just as the 1995 heat wave forever changed how Chicago responds to temperature. New York may model its preparations for the next “big one” on cities such as Singapore, which has high-tech strategies for reducing its dependence on imported water and an astonishing effort to improve drainage when the floods do hit.  Or New York may model its prevention efforts after Rotterdam, which is working to accommodate the ever present threat of floods by, among other things, building a floating pavilion in the city center that can convert to a water storage facility when the rainfall is heavy. Whatever the approach it takes, the city will work to make itself more resilient in the future.

But as Klinenberg notes, resilience is more than engineering. It is not only an incident command system. It’s the “fragile, agile networks” that make a difference. Building those takes investments in neighborhood support systems, in crime prevention, in creating real opportunities to make a living and enjoy a little comfort and security. It involves creating reasons for neighbors to pitch in and give back, and forge a sense of responsibility for one another. And all that begins with trust, something that cannot be artificially constructed. It takes slow, daily commitment to creating reasons for residents to trust one another.

Photo credit: New York Magazine

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