“I think the key to my, our experience is, the fact that we were a very, very tight knit community helped immensely.”
— JD, 2020 CZU Lightening Complex Fire survivor
We often hear from people that those around them were what helped most in getting through a disaster. Friends and family out of the area may provide emotional and financial support. But neighbors and other members of the local community offer the understanding of a shared experience, the vision of local knowledge, and the power of collective action.
The importance of social connections for disaster recovery is borne out by research. Daniel Aldrich, a professor at Northeastern University, has studied why some communities fare better than others in disaster. His conclusion?
“… resilience – the ability to recover from shocks, including natural disasters – comes from our connections to others, and not from physical infrastructure or disaster kits.”
— Daniel Aldrich, Recovering from disasters: Social networks matter more than bottled water and batteries
Studying several very large catastrophes, Dr. Aldrich and colleagues found that communities with more “horizontal ties” — relationships between individuals that are approximately symmetric in mutual standing and obligation — had lower mortality rates.
At the level of whole cities, however, “vertical ties”— relationships where “one member has greater power, authority, knowledge or wisdom” — are more important. Cities with stronger vertical ties recovered more quickly, particularly when these ties were with decision-makers outside the area.
Horizontal and vertical ties are both forms of “social capital” — the human relationships that give an individual access to greater resources than they themselves have. As Aldrich has found, social capital is more important to community resilience than “physical capital” — tools, structures, and materials.
That makes sense: Social connections offer not only emotional and practical benefits, but it’s more likely that the resources needed are available somewhere in the social network than that any one individual or household will have everything. So it is more valuable to know someone who knows someone, than it is to try to have everything that might be needed.
But, do you actually have to know someone who knows someone?
In one sense, yes. You want people nearby who know you, and will rush to your aid, should you need it. In another sense, no. While it is, of course, easier and more powerful to have a social network in place before you need it, a versatile second-best is to be able to build one in the moment.
This gets us into the third type of capital that is key to community resilience, “human capital” — the skills and knowledge of individuals. In this case, the confidence it takes to approach strangers, and the social skills it takes to forge a connection with them.
Get over it! Practice talking to strangers. Start with small talk — it really works! Practice responsive listening — listening for what people need you to hear, not just the words they say. And, a great place to start?
Get to know your neighbors!
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