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Narrow escape from Hurricane Katrina inspires professor to study post-disaster recovery

08/20/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Daniel Aldrich, Political Science and Public Policy Professor. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Daniel Aldrich and his family narrowly escaped the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, he has examined post-disaster recovery in more than half a dozen distinct communities worldwide, with a particular focus on the importance of social capital. Here, he shares his story, the first in news@Northeastern’s three-part series commemorating the 10th anniversary of what FEMA called the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.

Part one: ‘A day and a half late’

Daniel Aldrich surveyed the damage, moving from room to room in search of the salvageable. But he was out of luck. His home in the Lakeview section of New Orleans had flooded, destroying virtually everything—his furniture, his family photographs, his vast collection of 5,000 books. “My belongings,” he recalled, “were nothing more than a big, black smear on the ground.”

It was December 2005, and Aldrich was visiting New Orleans for the first time since August, when Hurricane Katrina had hit the city. He and his family—his wife, Yael, and their two young children—had moved from Boston to Lakeview in July, purchasing new furniture and a new car. Life, it seemed, was good. Aldrich, who had recently received his doctorate in political science from Harvard University, had accepted a job as a political science professor at Tulane University. His wife, for her part, was looking forward to becoming a full-time mom to their two boys, ages 1 and 4.

Aldrich—now a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University as well as the co-director of its Master’s in Security and Resilience Studies program—was scheduled to begin his new job on Monday, Aug. 29. In accordance with their religious customs, the family spent the preceding Friday and Saturday observing Shabbat, during which they abstained from watching TV and listening to the radio. If they had tuned in, they would have heard then Mayor Ray Nagin calling for a voluntary evacuation of the city. Instead, they remained in the dark, unaware of the severity of the impending storm until Saturday evening, when one of their neighbors knocked on their door and advised them to pick up and leave.

Aldrich heeded his neighbor’s advice, calling up one hotel after another in hopes of finding a vacancy. “We were a day and a half late,” he explained, “but I eventually found the last room at 1:30 a.m.” At 3 a.m., he roused his kids from slumber and led his family west, to a Days Inn Hotel in Houston. They arrived 14 hours later, on Sunday evening, pulling into a parking lot full of cars bearing Louisiana license plates. Swarms of storm evacuees had congregated in the hotel lobby, watching media coverage of the hurricane. “People were yelling, saying the streets in New Orleans were flooded,” Aldrich recalled, “and it was clear that none of us would be going home anytime soon.”

Part two: Community assistance

Hurricane Katrina officially made landfall between Grand Isle, Louisiana, and the mouth of the Mississippi River on Monday at 6 a.m. More than 1,800 people died due to the storm, which caused more than $108 billion in damage and forced hundreds of offices, hospitals, and schools to close, including Tulane.

The Aldrich family spent the next three days in the hotel, sitting around their room with nothing to do. Money was running low and their possessions were few—a crock pot for cooking and books for the kids. On their fourth day in Houston, the city’s Jewish community got wind of the Aldriches plight, and two families invited them into their homes to assist in their recovery. The kind strangers offered up toys for the kids and clothing for the whole family, bringing smiles to the faces of everyone involved.

A few days later, the Aldriches returned to Boston. As the patriarch explained, “The city was a shelter for us, it was a haven.” Boston’s Jewish community paid his eldest son’s tuition for Brookline’s Torah Academy and helped his family move in to a rent-free basement in the city’s Brighton neighborhood. Harvard, for its part, offered Aldrich an office in which he could hash out the tenets of his next research project. His new idea, he explained, grew out of his family’s experience with Hurricane Katrina and focused on one central question: What factors drive post-disaster recovery? Aldrich wondered whether a community’s ability to recover from a catastrophe is driven not by wealth and education but by the bonds forged between people, by the depth of their social capital. “I wanted to find out if it would be possible to measure those social interactions,” he explained, “and see if their strength or weakness affected the process of recovery.”

Part three: ‘I’ll bring the chainsaw’

Aldrich returned to New Orleans in December and then spent the spring 2005 semester on the Tulane faculty. But he knew that he and his family, who were renting an apartment, would not stay in the beleaguered city for long. Housing prices were high, the public transportation system was broken, grocery stores and gas stations were few and far between. “We weren’t going to buy a home in New Orleans,” Aldrich said, “and we knew that the overall infrastructure would be worse post-Katrina.”

He started looking for university jobs in other cities and eventually landed a position with Harvard, working as a research associate in the university’s program on U.S.-Japan relations. He moved his family back to Boston in the summer, commenced work in the fall, and then received an Abe Fellowship to study post-disaster responses in Japan and India, kicking off his deep examination of disaster recovery.

Over the past nine years, Aldrich has examined post-disaster response in more than half a dozen distinct communities worldwide. His work has taken him to a spate of far-flung cities, from Lyttelton, New Zealand, the site of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, to Tamil Nadu, India, whose coastline bore the brunt of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

His findings—derived from a combination of fieldwork and secondary research—revealed that communities with robust social networks were better able to coordinate recovery. Oftentimes, firefighters and paramedics didn’t save the most lives—neighbors did. “Neighborhoods with higher levels of social capital work together more effectively to guide resources to where they are needed,” Aldrich wrote in his 2012 book Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery. “Individuals who are connected to extra-local organizations and decision-makers prove more resilient because those networks remain robust even after a local crisis. Survivors borrow tools from each other, use their connections to learn about new bureaucratic requirements and procedures, and collaborate to organize community watch organizations.”

As a political science professor at Purdue University, Aldrich returned to New Orleans to study the relationship between social capital and community resilience post-Katrina. He found that tight-knit communities bound together by strong relationships and mutual interests had recovered much quicker than those that did not share powerful connections. A prime example is the city’s Mary Queen of Vietnam community. In the months and years prior to Hurricane Katrina, community members forged strong bonds with each other, attending the same church, speaking the same language, enjoying the same activities. After Katrina hit, they caravanned in from emergency shelters and cobbled together 500 signatures to keep the power on in their neighborhood, enabling them to rebuild without delay. By 2009, some 90 percent of the neighborhood’s members had returned. “The combination of ethnic, religious, and political factors made this an incredibly tight neighborhood,” Aldrich explained. “They built an urban farm, a new medical center, and their own school.” Each community member knew his role in the rebuilding process. As Aldrich put it, “One person would say, ‘I’ll bring the bleach,’ and another would say, ‘I’ll bring the chainsaw.’”

His forthcoming book will examine the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, with a particular focus on the social ties of survivors who were exposed to radiation. “The evidence suggests that people with many friends and strong social connections feel less anxious about the future than those with fewer friends and connections,” Aldrich said. “They have what we call a mental shield against distress.”

Part four: The Mister Rogers method

Aldrich and his research collaborators have studied several strategies for building social capital, many of which have been tested in far-flung cities worldwide. “It takes a  long time to create these social ties,” he explained, “and you can’t do it in the wake of a disaster when everyone is stressed out.”

One strategy, aptly called the Mister Rogers method and undertaken in both Tokyo and San Francisco, aimed to convene neighbors at community game nights. Another strategy, piloted in Japan and New Zealand, focused on time-based currency. Volunteer for one hour, Aldrich explained, and earn $10 that must be spent at a local store. Receive the alternative currency at your mom-and-pop shop in exchange for household goods, he said, and pay it forward by spending the money at another neighborhood business. As Aldrich noted, “This encourages volunteering and builds a virtuous cycle of doing good in the community.” A third strategy centered on building communal spaces in temporary shelters for survivors of the 3/11 disaster in Japan, including shared libraries, kitchens, and gyms. “These spaces,” he said, “improved the number of connections people had and made people feel much more secure after the disaster.”

His family, for its part, is bent on building a robust social network in the Brighton community. Despite returning to the Boston neighborhood just one week ago, the Aldriches have already joined a new synagogue and formed a strong bond with their neighbor, who allowed them to use his Internet connection before theirs was up and running. “We’re doing our best to plug into the networks in Boston,” Aldrich said.