Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Neighbors Key to Survival

“Americans don’t know their neighbors” my dinner guest said, in response to my asking him what surprises him most in his visit to this country. “In my country, we all know our neighbors. It’s important to know your neighbors.”

I agreed, and quoted him this article supporting his view that I heard on National Public Radio, one of those ideas I hear so often on NPR because they cover news other news sources ignore.

Below is just a portion of the story, which you can read in whole by clicking on this blue type. Even better, if you want, you can listed to the story yourself by clicking on the “Listen to the Story: All things Considered” button on this same page.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, one victim was political scientist Daniel Aldrich. He had just moved to New Orleans. Late one August night, there was a knock on the door.

“It was a neighbor who knew that we had no idea of the realities of the Gulf Coast life,” said Aldrich, who is now a political scientist at Purdue University in Indiana. He “knocked on our door very late at night, around midnight on Saturday night, and said, ‘Look, you’ve got small kids — you should really leave.’ ”

The knock on the door was to prove prophetic. It changed the course of Aldrich’s research and, in turn, is changing the way many experts now think about disaster preparedness.

Officials in New Orleans that Saturday night had not yet ordered an evacuation, but Aldrich trusted the neighbor who knocked on his door. He bundled his family into a car and drove to Houston.

“Without that information we never would’ve left,” Aldrich said. I think we would’ve been trapped.”

In fact, by the time people were told to leave, it was too late and thousands of people got stuck.

Because of his own experience in Katrina, Aldrich started thinking about how neighbors help one another during disasters. He decided to visit disaster sites around the world, looking for data.

Aldrich’s findings show that ambulances and firetrucks and government aid are not the principal ways most people survive during — and recover after — a disaster. His data suggest that while official help is useful — in clearing the water and getting the power back on in a place such as New Orleans after Katrina, for example — government interventions cannot bring neighborhoods back, and most emergency responders take far too long to get to the scene of a disaster to save many lives. Rather, it is the personal ties among members of a community that determine survival during a disaster, and recovery in its aftermath.

When Aldrich visited villages in India hit by the giant 2004 tsunami, he found that villagers who fared best after the disaster weren’t those with the most money, or the most power. They were people who knew lots of other people — the most socially connected individuals. In other words, if you want to predict who will do well after a disaster, you look for faces that keep showing up at all the weddings and funerals.

“Those individuals who had been more involved in local festivals, funerals and weddings, those were individuals who were tied into the community, they knew who to go to, they knew how to find someone who could help them get aid,” Aldrich says.

My visiting guest was from Lebanon, where neighbors have relied on one another for years as civil unrest rocks the country.

“I am guessing we move more often than your family and friends,” I ventured. “You are right, it is harder to establish long-lasting neighborly relations here where people come and go more often.”

Actually, we have settled in a fairly established neighborhood, where many people around us have lived for years and years, some all their lives. But we have only been here a year, and it takes time to build strong neighborly relations. But we are aware that connecting with our neighbors and staying connected is important in a part of the country vulnerable to life-threatening hurricanes and other natural emergencies.

You can listen to the entire report in 6 minutes and 3 seconds here.

September 1, 2011 - Posted by | Adventure, Bureaucracy, Character, Civility, Community, Cultural, Environment, Events, Friends & Friendship, Interconnected, Living Conditions, Pensacola, Statistics, Survival, Values


  1. Intlxpatr :

    Is it still an on going tradition to have a house warming party for the new neighbours once they move in . That says a lot about the friendliness of Americans .

    Comment by daggero | September 2, 2011 | Reply

  2. Hmmmmm. I think that both your guest’s views – about Lebanon and about the US – are overly broad. In the US, it depends upon the place – even upon the neighborhood. I knew no one in my last place, but my next door, across the street, and even down the street neighbors have all come over to welcome me in this house – and to give me a copy of the block directory, which includes everything from home and work numbers to kids’ names and ages and pets’ names and descriptions.

    Further, in Lebanon neighbors may know one another but they can also be very aggressive in policing against ‘strangers’. I had friends asked multiple times when they came to visit me: ‘why are you here?’ and ‘what are you doing in our neighborhood?”

    I don’t think either extreme (the anonymous NYC or the policing Lebanon) is all that healthy – but I do treasure having such warm neighbors here!

    Comment by adiamondinsunlight | September 3, 2011 | Reply

  3. Daggero, it depends on the neighborhood. There is a neighborhood in Pensacola, North Pensacola Heights, which is an area of grand old houses and also some smaller houses. They have an association which is awesome in the power and fellowship it evokes. They are united and helpful to one another. They get together often, not just meetings but to share meals (potluck) or drink wine or some of them run their dogs together. It’s a very close neighborhood.

    We live in a less united neighborhood, but we do have an association, and many of our neighbors have lived here for a long time. The housewarming tradition still is strong in America. As Episcopalians, we have a ‘house blessing’ ceremony, where the priest blesses the house for its new occupants. When we had our house in Seattle blessed, some of the holy water hit my youngest sister, and she tried, but she couldn’t resist it, she said “Oh, I’m melting, I’m melting!” (reference to the wicked witch of the north in The Wizard of Oz.) The priest looked at me and said “YOUR sister, right?” and I said “yes, how do you know?” and he just looked at me. We can’t help it, we have an instinct to make jokes in serious moments.

    Comment by intlxpatr | September 3, 2011 | Reply

  4. Little Diamond, I love it that your neighborhood directory includes the names and descriptions of PETS! LOL, that is a caring neighborhood!

    Are you going to have a housewarming? 🙂 Mabruk! Mabruk!

    Comment by intlxpatr | September 3, 2011 | Reply

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