Recovering from disasters: Social networks matter more than bottled water and batteries

 at The Conversation: “Almost six years ago, Japan faced a paralyzing triple disaster: a massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns that forced 470,000 people to evacuate from more than 80 towns, villages and cities. My colleagues and I investigated how communities in the hardest-hit areas reacted to these shocks, and found that social networks – the horizontal and vertical ties that connect us to others – are our most important defense against disasters….

We studied more than 130 cities, towns and villages in Tohoku, looking at factors such as exposure to the ocean, seawall height, tsunami height, voting patterns, demographics, and social capital. We found that municipalities which had higher levels of trust and interaction had lower mortality levels after we controlled for all of those confounding factors.

The kind of social tie that mattered here was horizontal, between town residents. It was a surprising finding given that Japan has spent a tremendous amount of money on physical infrastructure such as seawalls, but invested very little in building social ties and cohesion.

Based on interviews with survivors and a review of the data, we believe that communities with more ties, interaction and shared norms worked effectively to provide help to kin, family and neighbors. In many cases only 40 minutes separated the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami. During that time, residents literally picked up and carried many elderly people out of vulnerable, low-lying areas. In high-trust neighborhoods, people knocked on doors of those who needed help and escorted them out of harm’s way….

In another study I worked to understand why some 40 cities, towns and villages across the Tohoku region had rebuilt, put children back into schools and restarted businesses at very different rates over a two-year period. Two years after the disasters some communities seemed trapped in amber, struggling to restore even half of their utility service, operating businesses and clean streets. Other cities had managed to rebound completely, placing evacuees in temporary homes, restoring gas and water lines, and clearing debris.

To understand why some cities were struggling, I looked into explanations including the impact of the disaster, the size of the city, financial independence, horizontal ties between cities, and vertical ties from the community to power brokers in Tokyo. In this phase of the recovery, vertical ties were the best predictor of strong recoveries.

Communities that had sent more powerful senior representatives to Tokyo in the years before the disaster did the best. These politicians and local ambassadors helped to push the bureaucracy to send aid, reach out to foreign governments for assistance, and smooth the complex zoning and bureaucratic impediments to recovery…

As communities around the world face disasters more and more frequently, I hope that my research on Japan after 3.11 can provide guidance to residents facing challenges. While physical infrastructure is important for mitigating disaster, communities should also invest time and effort in building social ties….(More)”