Neighbors connecting in disasters

Have you ever noticed how people just seem to know your business around here? Maybe it's bred into the culture, part of our rowhouse roots or that whole smallest-big-city thing, but no man is an island in Baltimore.

I remember grilling lamb chops in my backyard shortly after I'd moved into my current house, when someone I hadn't met yet materialized at the fence and asked, "Want some rosemary to go with that?"


Um, sure, and I'll take some disaster survival insurance, too.

Engaged neighbors, Daniel P. Aldrich tells me, are key to surviving and recovering from natural disasters. He knows that from personal experience, but also his academic research — the political scientist has found that the most important factor in surviving and recovering from disasters like the tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was having strong social connections within your community.


"In Japan, it was that someone knew Mrs. Tanaka across the street is in a wheelchair," Aldrich said. "In New Orleans, it was that someone knew Mr. Smith has diabetes and would need his medicine."

Perhaps it was inevitable that Aldrich moved to the area in a week that brought both an earthquake and now a hurricane. On leave from Purdue University, where he is an associate professor of political science, he moved to Silver Spring to start a fellowship next month at USAID, the foreign assistance agency, in Washington.

Aldrich is something of his own case study, having escaped Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because of a thoughtful neighbor.

He had just moved to New Orleans that summer to teach at Tulane in the fall, and was hosting a Saturday night dinner party when the one person he had met in the neighborhood knocked on the door.

"Look, this storm is real, and you have two small kids," Aldrich remembers the neighbor warning him. "We left Sunday morning," he said.

Monday, Katrina made landfall, and soon his neighborhood was under 14 feet of water.

He and his wife now have four children, ranging in age from 1 to 10 years old, and they stocked up this week on bottled water and flashlights in preparation for Irene. But Aldrich also made sure to meet the neighbors in his new community, and not only out of self-interest.

"The reality is, we like the idea anyway that we're building a community," he said with a laugh.


Aldrich has found that often, people who survive disasters have been rescued by their neighbors rather than first responders, given that emergency personnel simply can't get to everyone, or get blocked by downed trees or flooded streets.

"The 1995 Kobe [Japan] earthquake, in which 6,500 people were killed, most who survived weren't saved by first responders," he said. "They were pulled out of the rubble by their neighbors who knew where to dig because they knew where their bedrooms were."

He calls this neighborhood-level intelligence "social capital," but it sounds a lot like good old-fashioned gossip, over-the-fence and word-on-the-street chatter. "In Jewish cultures, it's the yenta network," Aldrich agrees.

What's interesting to me is that these are social channels in the old, pre-digital sense. This isn't about Facebook friends or Twitter followers, but real-life neighbors, fellow church members, corner bar regulars and other co-travelers in whatever circles you frequent.

And in fact, Aldrich's research on disaster survival and recovery doesn't deal much with virtual connections even if they have a role in spreading information or raising relief funds in the aftermath. And online information, he added, can more easily be falsified.

"If you tell me online you're a millionaire, you're Bill Gates, I might believe you," Aldrich said. "But if you're in my neighborhood, and you tell me you're a millionaire and I know you're living in a shack, I know you're lying."


His personal and professional brushes with disasters have him approaching Irene with a certain calm. As someone who moved frequently as a child, and now for his academic career, he's accustomed to being the new person on a block.

"If you see someone, you say hello," Aldrich said. "For me, the lessons are that we're not worried about our possessions, we're more worried about our connections."