Bite-size Case Study

Hurricane Katrina: measuring social capital

Published on July 31, 2022 Originally recorded 2022   7 min
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On this slide, you should see a map. An image of New Orleans, Louisiana. This is really where my research into this field began. Back in 2005, I moved down to New Orleans with my family from Boston, and we had six very good weeks in New Orleans from July until August of 2005. Unfortunately, at the end of August, around the 28th, Hurricane Katrina arrived and destroyed the city. It, of course, flooded our home, the homes of of our neighbors and our neighborhood, our car, all of our paper records, my hard drive. Pretty much everything that we owned materially was destroyed in that flood. In the process that followed, I began thinking about these questions of what factors drive recovery and resilience after a major shock. This image that you see right now comes from the work of my colleague Rick Weil and I. We began to go through the city of New Orleans after the flood and ask people who lived there a very simple question. On a scale of 1-5, how has the recovery gone for you? We collected data for about a year after the hurricane passed. This map has three types of data then. Of course, it's a map. It has geographic data on the south. That blue oxbow shape is the Mississippi River. On the north, that's Lake Pontchartrain. My house was on Canal Boulevard. It's the north-south road in the west side. But we also added flood depth information. The background colors in the map show how much water was in homes and businesses across New Orleans. The very light areas in the south, in Jefferson Parish, for example, there were fewer than two feet of water. In the darker yellow areas in Plaquemines and uptown, we had 2-4 feet of water. In the lighter blue areas, we see 4-7 feet of water, and the darker blue areas, most of the map, had 7+ feet of water. Finally, we added the responses of those individuals that we spoke to after Hurricane Katrina. Those red, orange, yellow and green dots show the responses from those thousand or so people that we spoke to. Now I expected to find, across New Orleans, that where we had more water, that is to say, darker blue colors in the background, we'd find more red or not recoveries. The reality was, though, in fact, even in the very light areas in the south where there was not much water, there are a number of individuals who told us things were not going well. In the darkest blue areas, we see whole communities telling us things are green or doing really well. This, for me, was one of the first hints that recovery and resilience in the context of disaster do not come only from the power of the disaster itself. That is to say, the amount of water in a background or the height of the wave of a tsunami, or the power of an earthquake, those factors, I would argue, are not what drive recovery and resilience. Instead, it's the social connections that we have to each other. Now on this map itself, you can see clusters of responses, especially in the northeast quadrant there. That's the geological rest area. All of the spots, as you can see, are almost all green. That community came back early as a community, centered around the Catholic Church there with very strong ethnic and religious ties to each other and they're a good example of the kind of social ties I'll be talking about in a second. Again, the core argument in this talk today is that social capital, the ties that bind us, are a critical element to measure precisely because of the role they play in resilience and recovery.