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Katrina Survivor Explains How To Weather Disaster


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

We tend to think of disaster preparation as sea walls, tornado shelters or buildings designed to withstand earthquakes - all important, argues political scientist Daniel Aldrich, but so are street fairs, local politics and the example of Fred Rodgers. The depth and power of social networks prove to be critical factors in how well communities cope, how resilient they are. If you've weathered a flood, a fire, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, one of those disasters, what made the difference? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Daniel Aldrich joins us by phone from Tokyo, where it's early tomorrow morning. He's associate professor at Purdue University, a Fulbright professor at Tokyo University. His op-ed, "How to Weather a Hurricane," ran in The New York Times last month. And good of you to be getting up so early to be with us.

DANIEL ALDRICH: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And in your op-ed you talk about your own experience, how you came to this realization with you and your family in Hurricane Katrina.

ALDRICH: Yes. It really changed our life in several different ways. We had moved down to New Orleans in July of 2005 and had no realities, whatsoever, of dealing with the life on the Gulf Coast. And of course, in late August, Hurricane Katrina arrived. We didn't even know it was coming. We didn't really watched TV or radio at the time, that much. And a neighbor had to tell us on Saturday night that we should evacuate. And we did on Sunday morning, and we went 14 hours in the car to go into Houston. We learned, Monday morning, our house had been destroyed and our things, our car, everything else we owned.

And that really changed a lot of things for us. It changed my social perspective as someone who now experienced the disaster, but it also changed our research perspective because we applied to FEMA soon after that, I think in early October, and didn't hear back from them until March of the next year.


ALDRICH: In that interval, I had a lot of time to think about what it means for our family to recover, for a neighborhood to recover and, of course, for a city to recover.

CONAN: And you've gone through fairly recent history and taken some examples. I was particularly struck by the example you drew from the earthquake that struck Kobe, Japan.

ALDRICH: Yes. That was an amazing experience. I was there soon afterwards, actually, doing an internship down in Kobe. And I noticed several different things. One was that, for many neighborhoods in Kobe, the one thing that saves lives have been their ability to organize and work collectively. In fact, in one neighborhood, they had self-organized a firefighting brigade that fought the fires that burned down the houses in neighboring areas. But they had somehow managed to work together to get buckets, to get a hose and put those fires out.

So the more time I spent talking to survivors, the more I realized that neighborhood had experienced working together on a wide variety of issues: environment, politics, cleaning up the neighborhood and old folks homes - all kind of issues. And the neighborhood that had watched their homes burned down really had very little experience working together. That was a clue to me that something bigger was going on here in these neighborhoods.

CONAN: So the density and the strength of these social networks, you say, are more important than, well, wealth or education?

ALDRICH: That's right. You know, the biggest difference whether it's in Japan, in India, in the Gulf Coast where I've lived in these communities, the biggest difference has been the ability of people to trust each other, to work together, to figure out plans that will benefit as many people as possible. Now, wealth really doesn't help you if power is out and you don't have a generator, if you need a place to go to have your son or daughter get diapers. All of the resources that we rely on during the year are shut down during periods of crisis. And it's through these connections, through neighborhoods that we really get the things that we need. And in our case, for example, it's information. Again, we didn't understand what it meant to have a disaster in New Orleans, our neighbor did and she really saved our lives.

CONAN: And I hope you've ingrained the importance of having a radio on 24 hours a day.


ALDRICH: Yes, now, thanks to my mom, we have a permanent emergency radio with us at all times.

CONAN: Right.

ALDRICH: So we're much better prepared now than we were before.

CONAN: By five or six?

ALDRICH: Let's see. We have AM, FM, world view and also a crank, a solar radio as well.

CONAN: We're talking with Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor at Purdue. He's currently a Fulbright professor at Tokyo University. He's on the line with us from there, about the lessons that he learned - starting with Hurricane Katrina - on how to survive a hurricane and other disasters. And we'd like to hear from those of you who survived what really mattered in the end. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can start with Scott, and Scott's with us from Spearfish, in South Dakota.

SCOTT: Hi. Yeah, Neal. We lived briefly down in Buffalo Gap, Texas, then had a - what everyone called the 500-year flood. We had been living in our house for about two weeks. It was a little log cabin. And it just - it came at night. And we managed to get out with our two daughters and our pets, but our two horses were left out in the field. And - but what really made a difference in that small town of Buffalo Gap, churches and individuals, people we didn't - many of whom we didn't even know because we've only been there for a couple of weeks came out.

I remember one guy, his name was actually - his name was Angel. He came down the road with a whole bunch of water bottles one day while we were out there trying to work and said, I am Angel. You want some water? And there were a number of people who came and helped us muck the red mud out of our house, and then donations of money to rebuild the fence so that our - we can keep our horses. And so, anyway, it was really the community, including churches and even strangers pulling together to help us.

CONAN: Daniel Aldrich, that seems to reinforce your point.

ALDRICH: Exactly, and two different things in that story. You know, one is the fact that, you know, water and supplies that we need at the time are there, but also the way that organizations - whether from churches, synagogues, mosques - pull together to help people they've never met before. And I think that's a really critical part of this process, that through connections through friends of friends.

In our case, for example, I had offers of housing. Our house was destroyed in New Orleans. So we'd have offers of housing as far away as California, Philadelphia, Boston (unintelligible) friends of friends, people we never met. They trust that we need what we say we need. And they also trust that when we get it, we'll use it for the right reasons. You know, to give someone you never met before something that matters requires that level of expectation. And thank goodness we have it here in America.

CONAN: Scott, glad you pulled through.

SCOTT: Thank you. We're glad, too. It's a good - it made some good stories.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

ALDRICH: Thank you.

CONAN: And it's interesting, Daniel Aldrich, you say that the first rule in developing these ties is to follow the example of Fred Rogers.

ALDRICH: Yes. And Mr. Rogers told us many times to be a good neighbor. And we found, actually, the first question you should ask yourself is: How many neighbors do I know well? Not just their faces - which most of us hopefully do - but also their names, what medicines they might need, if they're in need of a wheelchair, for example.

We found some really powerful examples from both Kobe and America, which is that in the first 72 hours after an earthquake in Japan, most survivors are saved, not by professional first responders, by firefighters or police officers, but by their neighbors who knew where they had slept the night before, knew where, in the pile of rubbles that was now their house, they should look for the bodies. That was a great powerful message to me, that those people being saved were being saved because someone knew where they were.

We've also seen more recently in the Tohoku disaster up north in Japan that most people had around 40 minutes to escape the tsunami, between the sirens going off announcing its arrival and the actual wave. Forty minutes is not much time if you're older, if you're in the bed, if you're sick. But if you have a neighbor who knows what you need or a car ride out of the city, assistance from bed, those neighbors will literally save your life. So, yeah, the first message for me, at least, and from - in my mind, for the government to think about is promoting the ability to know what people around you need.

CONAN: Tohoku is the name of the region that was afflicted by the tsunami in north - north of Tokyo. So that's what he's referring to there. Anyway, let's get another caller in. And let's go to Nicholas, Nicholas, a caller from Houston.

NICHOLAS: Yes. I'm calling from Houston, and I'm a Katrina survivor. And I heard the gentleman talked - say that he went to New Orleans in July, and he didn't know too much about the city. But I was rescued from the top of my house by the military helicopters.

The difference for me was the fact that I was taken to San Antonio, Texas. And the people there, I must say, are the best people in the world, because the way they're treated, the people were - brought to - from new Orleans, who were brought to San Antonio, they treated us just like we were family, I mean, really family. And I heard from other people who stayed other places saying that they were considered refugees and all kinds of stuff. San Antonio, I'm giving you a big scream out. You are the best place in the world. You have the best people in the world.

CONAN: So what are you doing in Houston?

NICHOLAS: Well, I stayed here because my house was flooded, nine feet of water inside the house, and we had a - the place where we stayed, it was totally - we had to tear it down, OK?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NICHOLAS: We had to tear it down because we had nine feet water. I lost my dog - by the way, I have to say that I lost my dog. I had my dog for nine years.

CONAN: I'm sorry.

NICHOLAS: I lost my dog. My dog died in the water. And, you know, I'm retired, so I'm in Houston. So I didn't have any reason to go back, because I'm not working. I have - you know, but I'm retiring, so that's why I'm staying in Houston. I don't have to go back to New Orleans.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Nicholas. I'm sure the people in San Antonio appreciate the shout out.

NICHOLAS: They're number one.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Bob in Campbell, California: I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just after the 1989 earthquake, I went to my building to check on it. The company credit union also had an office in that building. The CU manager was already there trying to enter the building to activate the office in case people needed access to their funds. I've been a matter of - member of Addison Avenue, now First Tech Credit Union, ever since. So, yes, so loyalty to those who were there when you need them.

It's also interesting, Daniel Aldrich, as we're just hearing that story from the man who was lifted from his roof by a helicopter, there are times - yes, of course, community, very important, friends and family. But there are certain resources that only the government can bring to bear.

ALDRICH: Absolutely. And what we've found, actually, is the government can better do its job of helping citizens when they're well-organized internally, and whether this is in India, for example, where we saw that a lot of aid came in, whether it was food aid, new shelters, for example. But whether the community can self-organize and let planners, let decision makers know look, these are our community needs, as a whole, then the aid was better spent and better distributed.

In the communities that I visited, where people didn't have that level of self-organization, didn't have the trust, it was much more difficult, for example, for the government to get a list of people who needed help, more difficult for them to get out food to everyone who needed it, and to make sure everyone who needed shelter was available for shelter. So absolutely, we need government resources. We also need, you know, private businesses. We just heard an insurance company helped out. You know, stores like Wal-Mart helped out, as well. But those resources are best distributed when the citizens, when we ourselves are better organized.

CONAN: Daniel Aldrich, a political scientist, now a Fulbright professor at Tokyo University, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, "How to Weather a Hurricane." There's a link to it on our website. That's at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. So act like Mr. Rogers, first of all, but local governments and communities, associations, you say, should organize street fairs. You don't think of that as disaster preparation?


ALDRICH: Not normally. You know, in Indiana, we have block parties, for example. We think those kind of events, where people get out of their homes, meet new faces, learn who lives nearby, those help build what we call bonding social capital, which is a really a fancy way of saying, we get to know people and what they want and what they need. Those events in Japan, actually, are government sponsored in many cases, called matsuri, or festivals, there's money made available to local governments and to local individuals who do these kinds of activities.

So, you know, whether it's an informal street fair where people get out of their homes and say, hello, a block party, a local sports festival for kids, a barbeque in the park, all of those kind of events are ones which help us build up our faith and trust in neighbors. You know, for many of us in America, Bob Putnam has shown over the last 50 years, we've really lost some of those connections. We don't go out as much with our friends. We have fewer guests over at our home. We give less blood. We join fewer organizations. We don't volunteer for the PTA.

Now, we've found in our studies that communities that build these kind of organizations, local festivals, events, barbeques, those are great ways of getting people out of their homes, out of their shells and to connect at a time when many people are both swamped by the Internet, by email, by Facebook and so forth, but also really busy.

CONAN: Let's go next to Carol, Carol with us from Columbus, in Ohio.

CAROL: Hi, Neal. This is the first time on in your show. It's a pleasure. I went through Hurricane Andrew, and it was very hot, obviously, went through similar things that the different callers went through and went - we were experiencing no ice, nothing cold, and Fort Lauderdale people were coming down with trucks charging $50 for a bag of ice. And when we were finally able to get out of our area, I went to a strip mall and I saw this big truck with the line of people, and I thought, I don't care what it is. I'm getting in line. And when I got up to the front, a Budweiser truck was handing out free bags of ice. And that was awesome.

CONAN: Well, that's fantastic. So, Daniel Aldrich, an example, again, of a private company seeing a need and helping out.

CAROL: Absolutely.

ALDRICH: That's right. We found many times where people tell stories of, you know, price gouging, raising prices, that kind of stuff. But the reality is, you know, many firms - like Wal-Mart, for example - were the first on the ground. They have very deep organizational networks. They can get food and water and shelter to where it needs to go, and they have huge stores full of supplies. So I've spoken to many managers in New Orleans who did their best, as quickly as possible to open their stores up, of course, for medical supplies and food, but also as shelters themselves at a time when it was sweltering.

So, yes, you know, we found especially firms tied into communities, firms that feel they're a part of the goings-on there locally. They feel a really strong need to do the best they can during disasters.

CONAN: And, Carol, have you had an affection for Blue beer since?

CAROL: I certainly do. I am loyal to them.


CONAN: So it worked. I think you've probably paid back the price of that bag of ice sevenfold.

CAROL: Well, I don't know. I think they very were generous. They didn't sell beer. They gave us what we needed.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

CAROL: Thanks.

CONAN: And one last point before we let you go, Daniel Aldrich, and that is not just Mr. Rogers, not just the barbeque, but local politics turns out to be important, another way to develop those community ties.

ALDRICH: That's right. You know, one program that we found works really well is called Community Currency. And here, we ask people who volunteer if they'd like to be rewarded locally, for example, with a - an Ithaca dollar or a Berkley dollar. You know, these are currencies put up at a local government that circulate only locally. So I volunteer at a shelter nearby an ASPCA shelter, and I'm given a few dollars to spend.

Now, it can only be spent at local businesses, a mom-and-pop store, perhaps a farmer's market or a barber shop. And that currency then circulates to local businesses. So the government supports this program locally. And I myself feel, then, drawn into communities, to the business world and to volunteering. And we've found that communities that have this - whether in Japan or America - have measurably higher levels of volunteerism, but also trust, as well.

CONAN: Daniel Aldrich, thanks very much. And again, appreciate your getting up so early in Tokyo to be with us.

ALDRICH: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor at Purdue, also the author of "Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery." His op-ed "How to Weather a Hurricane" ran in The New York Times last month. And again, there's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow and TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.