Cataclysmic natural disasters seem to be the sort of events that demands a government response. Even classical liberals who favor tight limits on government’s role concede that responding to such disasters is a legitimate government purpose.
And, surely we do need government to respond to such catastrophes. But three scholars at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University—Virgil Henry Storr, Stefanie Haeffele-Balch, and Laura E. Grube—recently released a book Community Revival in the Wake of Disaster that focuses on how neighborhoods recovered in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy thanks in large part to initiatives undertaken by private individuals. Private citizens might not have the expertise of government officials, but, these scholars argue, local amateur efforts may be more successful than the efforts of outside government experts:
The marvel of disaster recovery … is that so many amateurs are able to figure it out. … Often, these amateurs do a better job than the experts in figuring out what their communities need to do to recover from disasters.
I heard one of the book’s co-authors, Stefanie Haeffele-Balch, speak at a local book event about their findings late last fall. She explained that one of their findings was that early predictions about which neighborhoods would come back and which wouldn’t frequently weren’t borne out. Some communities were deemed “unrecoverable” based on their economic level before Katrina. But it turned out that a few communities with very low wealth were able to make deep draws on social capital and so to rebuild.
A combination of factors seems key to community recovery: on one hand, deep social capital in community based on long-standing relationships and institutions that creates the trust and knowledge for common action, and, on the other hand, local entrepreneurs who see ways to spark community revival.
Entrepreneurial business owners are especially important because they help reassure people that they can get the basics they need. One New Orleans furniture store owner reopened her business three months after Katrina hit; a former customer spotted her and exclaimed, “Now that you’re here I know that everything’s going to be all right.” Another entrepreneur opened a coffee shop that proved to be a hub of information and social networks.
The authors of Community Revival in the Wake of Disaster also count as entrepreneurs those government officials who were willing to override procedures and rules in order to meet community needs. A month after Katrina hit, the superintendent of one Louisiana school district pledged to reopen schools in just a few weeks and called for parents to register their children. Given how many had left before or after the storm, she expected 50 students would enroll. But parents were encouraged to return to the area by the promise of education for their children, and hundreds of children were enrolled. The superintendent made good on her promise, even when she didn’t get support she thought she needed from FEMA and other government officials. She decided, “The heck with you guys. We can do it.” And she did.
Community Revival in the Wake of Disaster suggests that many communities have deep reserves of social capital ready to be activated by entrepreneurs. That contradicts the argument of scholars like Robert Putnam that social capital is being eroded in America. When I asked Ms. Haeffele-Balch about the book’s optimistic view of the state of social capital today, she responded that Putnam’s assessment was “too pessimistic” and that social media and other new technologies offer new ways for people to build social capital.
Social capital is essential to the resilience of local communities and to the American democratic ethos. It’s encouraging to read how social capital played a role in the communities devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and interesting to wonder what lessons we can draw for communities not subject to a cataclysmic natural disasters but being tested by more quotidian trials like poverty, weak schools, and social dislocation.