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Before the Brink

Spring 2010 | By Angie Roberts. Photo by Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune.

Hours before Lake Pontchartrain breached the 17th Street Canal levee, immersing their home under 15 feet of water, Professor Daniel Aldrich, his wife, and two children fled west with a suitcase and a slow cooker.

Although the family eventually returned to a rental in New Orleans furnished with help from synagogues and strangers, the wrenchingly slow pace of Hurricane Katrina recovery raised a question in Aldrich’s mind: Why do some cities bounce back rather rapidly while others seem stymied after disaster?

Armed with an Abe Fellowship from Tokyo University, Aldrich studied such catastrophes as the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He discovered that community ties, not government assistance, determined whether or not residents returned and rebuilt.

“Most people think of disaster recovery as a local government issue, or a national political issue. That’s really not the most interesting or important story,” says Aldrich, now an assistant professor of political science at Purdue. “The real question is whether or not the community was well structured long before the shock. Those areas that are better connected don’t wait for a plan to rebuild the city.”

In New Orleans, for example, many people from the Village de L’Est neighborhood returned as soon as officials allowed them, cleaning up debris and repairing houses with the help of their local Catholic parish. Two years later, when less than half of the city’s population had returned, nearly 90 percent of the neighborhood’s residents were back home.

While other neighborhoods in New Orleans continue to struggle, Aldrich says the recovery in Village de L’Est can be partly attributed to connections made long before the disaster, which were maintained afterward.

He has seen this pattern repeated in every catastrophe he’s studied, not only in qualitative evidence — which disaster research traditionally has focused on — but also in quantitative data.

His findings could also assist officials in Haiti and Chile, who, in their well-meaning efforts to rebuild following recent devastating earthquakes, could neglect the social infrastructure so crucial to each country’s long-term survival.

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