Tuesday, July 5, 2011

NPR's Shankar Vedantam: The Key To Disaster Survival? Friends And Neighbors

Photo of damaged house in Fukushima: (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

Shankar Vedantam has a great story at National Public Radio (U.S. public radio news), "The Key To Disaster Survival? Friends And Neighbors" detailing political scientist Daniel Aldrich's research on the role of friends and neighbors for disaster survival. Aldrich, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, was alerted to the importance of evacuation by a neighbor, long before the government call. What he found are examples of what journalist Tim Shorrock said he learned after Katrina: "Solidarity, not charity" and resonates with journalist David McNeill's article, "Why I love Japan even more since the earthquake":
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...

In Japan, Aldrich found that firetrucks and ambulances didn't save the most lives after earthquakes. Neighbors did.

"In Kobe in 1995, if you knew where your neighbors slept, because the earthquake was very early in the morning, you knew where to dig in the rubble to find them early enough in the process for them to survive," he says.

Because of his research, when a powerful earthquake struck Japan this March, Aldrich was certain that good neighbors would play a decisive role. Michinori Watanabe of Miyagi prefecture, about 100 miles from Fukushima in northern Japan, said the same thing.

Watanabe's father is paralyzed, and he needs a machine to breathe. When the earthquake struck and the power went out, the machine stopped working. Watanabe ran outside. He begged strangers: "Do you have a generator? Do you? Do you?"

...Not only did no professionals come to help Watanabe those first few minutes, there was no sign of them the first day.

Watanabe emptied his house of water and blankets and started helping neighbors who were homeless and shivering. They were still without help days later. And Watanabe did what good neighbors do when friends are in trouble: He improvised.

"I went on the street and stopped any car from outside, which has the number from outside the prefecture — I stopped them," said Watanabe. "I think it is not the proper way to do it, but I kind of pretended I was giving directions — and I found out who are they and what they have and then I asked them, "if you have anything, please leave it with us."

It's this passion for a local community and granular knowledge about who needs what that makes large-scale government interventions ineffective by comparison. It's even true when it comes to long-term recovery...

Governments and big nongovernmental organizations — which are keenly aware of the big picture — are often blind to neighborhood dynamics...

The problem isn't that experts are dumb. It's that communities are not the sum of their roads, schools and malls. They are the sum of their relationships...
Read the rest of this article about the power of social solidarity here.

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