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

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A photo of Professor Daniel Aldridge

Daniel Aldrich, a newly hired professor of political science and public policy, and his story is 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

‘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 in the face of Hur­ri­cane 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. The city’s Mary Queen of Vietnam com­mu­nity is a prime example. In the months and years prior to Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina, the community’s 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.”

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 focused 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.”

The Aldrich 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.

-By Jason Kornwitz

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