by Kim Lisagor 
The Rotarian -- April 2013  

In July 2005, Daniel Aldrich moved to New Orleans with his wife and two young children. They settled into a new home in the idyllic Lakeview neighborhood, where the kids played in the big backyard and Aldrich prepared for his new job as a political science professor at Tulane University.

Six weeks later, Hurricane Katrina struck.

Most of the neighbors left town as the raindrops began to fall, but the Aldriches, fearful of looting, stayed put. “We were brand new and didn’t really understand what it meant for a hurricane to come through,” he says. They had not yet activated their flood insurance.

The storm strengthened, and a concerned neighbor persuaded the family to pack a few belongings and get out. After a 14-hour drive, they spent the night at a motel on the outskirts of Houston. Almost every car in the parking lot had Louisiana plates. The next morning they heard someone shout, “Something’s happening in New Orleans. There’s water in the streets!”

Aldrich and the other evacuees crowded around a television and watched in disbelief. Failed levees had sent water gushing into the low-lying neighborhoods, flooding 80 percent of the city at depths of up to 20 feet. Eventually, more than 1,800 people lost their lives and a quarter of a million lost their homes – including the Aldrich family.

Tulane closed for the semester, and Aldrich suddenly found himself jobless as well as homeless. He started the process of applying to FEMA; six and a half months later, the agency would reject his claim. In the meantime, friends and relatives offered places to stay and spaces to work. Strangers gave the family clothes and, in one case, a winning $100 lottery ticket. Synagogues provided support.

Where official forms of aid failed, individuals filled in the gaps and helped the Aldriches rebuild their lives. “All the help we got came from people,” Aldrich says, “not government.”

Ever the academic, he started to read studies about disaster recovery. “None of the stories that academicswere telling mirrored my life,” he says. So he set out to conduct his own research.

He traveled to Japan to study neighborhoods that had been affected by the deadly Tokyo earthquake of 1923 and the Kobe quake of 1995. In India, he studied coastal villages that had been all but wiped out in the 2004 tsunami. He also returned to New Orleans. In all, Aldrich collected data from 225 neighborhoods and villages.

In each place, he measured recovery by how quickly the community repopulated, rebuilt, and resumed daily routines in the wake of the disaster.

His results came as a surprise to those who believe recovery rates depend on the amount of outside aid a community receives. Instead, Aldrich found that what matters most is “social capital,” which he defines in his book, Building Resilience, as “the networks and resources available to people through theirconnections to others.” Communities with strong social capital are more likely to bounce back than those with fewer social resources.

Take the case of Tamil Nadu, India, which was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami. Aldrich studied six villages there and found that those with strong uur panchayats (councils) were more organized and had better communication with one another and the outside world. They made lists of the dead and wounded and assessed their own need for food and supplies. When aid workers arrived, those needs were met quickly and efficiently. “They knew exactly who needed the aid and who didn’t, and what was needed and what wasn’t,” Aldrich says.

In contrast, villages that lacked such networks received little aid – or worse, too much of the wrong kind. “The aid that flowed in was called the ‘second tsunami,’” Aldrich says. “There was so much unnecessary stuff.” For instance, one well-meaning nongovernmental organization donated hundreds of plexiglass boats to a fishing village. The gift ended up damaging traditional social structures, decreasing overall catches, and increasing early marriage there. Effective aid requires effective internal communication, Aldrich says. “It doesn’t begin with the outside group. It always begins with the inside.”

In times of crisis, communities with Rotary clubs and other local service organizations have an innate advantage. The power of Rotary was clear after Hurricane Sandy tore through the Caribbean and northeastern United States in October, killing over 200 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless and millions without electricity. Funds came in from Rotarians around the world, and clubs in the affected areas helped organize the relief effort. They updated a website called Rotary in New York and New Jersey ( to include a Hurricane Sandy Disaster Aid tab and surveyed their communities to learn about specific needs, which included food, clothing, toiletries, and cleaning supplies. They then posted those needs online and helped distribute the aid.

Aldrich’s research also revealed that what happens before a disaster may be as important as what comes in response. Rotarians know that meaningful service projects must involve extensive dialogue between donors and recipients. They also understand the importance of fellowship, which is why most clubs meet weekly and many host social gatherings that include members’ families and friends. Some clubs hold special events that bring people together. These help build social capital.

All over the world, governments also support events that develop social capital. Japanese cities sponsor regional matsuri, or festivals. San Francisco has a Neighborhood Empowerment Network that helps residents initiate block parties and other get-to-know-your-neighbors activities. “Different societies have different forms of these kinds of events,” Aldrich says, “but the bottom line is the same: Get people out of their normal, small networks to meet new people, to make new connections, to have that feeling of connectedness.”

Another way communities strengthen social capital is to create a form of currency that residents can earn in exchange for volunteer service and spend at local businesses. This encourages volunteerism among the 5 to 10 percent of the population that is “on the fence” about service, Aldrich says. It also promotes local spending and increases interactions between people and businesses. “Communities with these kinds of programs have measurably higher levels of trust,” Aldrich notes.

Rotary clubs, whose members are local business leaders, are in a perfect position to implement them, he adds: “That’s the kind of project that is worth investing in. It creates new ties, it reinforces existing ones, it helps build up local businesses’ ties to the community and vice versa.”

Disasters are inevitable – and, as experts remind us every day, they seem to be increasing in their force and frequency. In times of trouble, communities that have invested in social capital are likely to see a return. In all other times, residents of those communities will feel more connected to their neighbors and have more pride in their home – assets that will pay dividends for years to come.