Editorial: A secret weapon in times of disaster
In New York and New Jersey, states whose coastlines were devastated by Hurricane Sandy two months ago, homeless residents are still awaiting passage of a $60 billion relief bill that died in a dithering Congress. A bill hastily enacted on Friday will provide $9.7 billion in aid, but the squabble and delay on the larger aid package has people frustrated at their inability to move the federal government – in the short run, to come to the aid of citizens in the aftermath of natural disasters; in the long run, to stem the burning of fossil fuels that’s driving climate change.
Natural disasters are occurring more often. New Hampshire has been through 13 in the past half-dozen years. Preparation to prevent damage, and prompt relief when it occurs, has become a necessity. Individual citizens can’t build sea gates or storm-proof the electric power grid. They can only press government to do so. But what individuals can do is build networks capable of quickly responding to those in need when disaster occurs.
Preparation means more than stocking up on canned goods and flashlight batteries. Planning that takes advantage of the social capital that exists in a neighborhood or community, and building that social capital in areas where it’s found wanting, is the key to what emergency preparedness experts call “community resiliency.”
Writing in the current issue of The New Yorker, sociology professor Eric Klineberg described the losses suffered and hardships experienced in more than a dozen Chicago neighborhoods during the 1995 heat wave that claimed an astounding 739 lives. The poor have fewer resources to fall back on in an emergency and less access to the corridors of power where aid is distributed, so it wasn’t surprising that eight of the 10 areas with the highest death rates were inhabited almost exclusively by low-income African-Americans. The shock came when researchers found that three of the neighborhoods that had the lowest death rates were also almost exclusively black and poor. There were fewer deaths per capita in those three neighborhoods than in many middle class enclaves. Social capital, that formal and informal network of neighbors knowing neighbors, low turnover, stable institutions, local businesses and the other factors that provide the glue that makes a community solid made all the difference.
In resilient neighborhoods people knew who would need help, who could provide food, space in a room with an air conditioner or a ride to a shelter. In neighborhoods that lacked social capital those most vulnerable, the elderly and disabled, saw their survival odds decrease, and not just during natural disasters. The life expectancy was five years longer in one low-income black neighborhood with lots of social capital than in a nearby low-income African-American neighborhood that lacked strong connections between residents
Social capital tends to be strong in New Hampshire. State government has a long history of taking preparedness seriously, in part because lawmakers recognized the need to prepare not only for natural disasters but a serious accident at one of the nuclear power plants that flank the state. As outgoing emergency management director Chris Pope said recently, the state’s response to the floods and other natural disasters that occurred on Gov. John Lynch’s watch was superb. But they would be even better if neighbors took some time to catalog their resources, make a list of their collective talents, and discuss how they could help each other in an emergency.
Representatives of Volunteer NH (volunteernh.org), the state non-profit that coordinates disaster preparation – or in Concord and 22 surrounding towns, employees of the Capital Area Public Health Network – will gladly attend neighborhood or club meetings to provide advice and distribute emergency response training materials. As one expert quoted by Klineberg said, when it comes to minimizing the loss from natural disasters, “it’s not just engineering that matters. It’s social capital.”