Neighbors Key to Survival
“Americans don’t know their neighbors” my dinner guest said, in response to my asking him what surprises him most in his visit to this country. “In my country, we all know our neighbors. It’s important to know your neighbors.”
I agreed, and quoted him this article supporting his view that I heard on National Public Radio, one of those ideas I hear so often on NPR because they cover news other news sources ignore.
Below is just a portion of the story, which you can read in whole by clicking on this blue type. Even better, if you want, you can listed to the story yourself by clicking on the “Listen to the Story: All things Considered” button on this same page.
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, one victim was political scientist Daniel Aldrich. He had just moved to New Orleans. Late one August night, there was a knock on the door.
“It was a neighbor who knew that we had no idea of the realities of the Gulf Coast life,” said Aldrich, who is now a political scientist at Purdue University in Indiana. He “knocked on our door very late at night, around midnight on Saturday night, and said, ‘Look, you’ve got small kids — you should really leave.’ “
The knock on the door was to prove prophetic. It changed the course of Aldrich’s research and, in turn, is changing the way many experts now think about disaster preparedness.
Officials in New Orleans that Saturday night had not yet ordered an evacuation, but Aldrich trusted the neighbor who knocked on his door. He bundled his family into a car and drove to Houston.
“Without that information we never would’ve left,” Aldrich said. I think we would’ve been trapped.”
In fact, by the time people were told to leave, it was too late and thousands of people got stuck.
Because of his own experience in Katrina, Aldrich started thinking about how neighbors help one another during disasters. He decided to visit disaster sites around the world, looking for data.
Aldrich’s findings show that ambulances and firetrucks and government aid are not the principal ways most people survive during — and recover after — a disaster. His data suggest that while official help is useful — in clearing the water and getting the power back on in a place such as New Orleans after Katrina, for example — government interventions cannot bring neighborhoods back, and most emergency responders take far too long to get to the scene of a disaster to save many lives. Rather, it is the personal ties among members of a community that determine survival during a disaster, and recovery in its aftermath.
When Aldrich visited villages in India hit by the giant 2004 tsunami, he found that villagers who fared best after the disaster weren’t those with the most money, or the most power. They were people who knew lots of other people — the most socially connected individuals. In other words, if you want to predict who will do well after a disaster, you look for faces that keep showing up at all the weddings and funerals.
“Those individuals who had been more involved in local festivals, funerals and weddings, those were individuals who were tied into the community, they knew who to go to, they knew how to find someone who could help them get aid,” Aldrich says.
My visiting guest was from Lebanon, where neighbors have relied on one another for years as civil unrest rocks the country.
“I am guessing we move more often than your family and friends,” I ventured. “You are right, it is harder to establish long-lasting neighborly relations here where people come and go more often.”
Actually, we have settled in a fairly established neighborhood, where many people around us have lived for years and years, some all their lives. But we have only been here a year, and it takes time to build strong neighborly relations. But we are aware that connecting with our neighbors and staying connected is important in a part of the country vulnerable to life-threatening hurricanes and other natural emergencies.