When Disaster Strikes, Connections Make Us Safer

Communities offer resilience and strength in ways that isolation cannot.

people waiting for transport
People wait for transport after being rescued from a flooded neighborhood following Hurricane Ida's arrival in Louisiana.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

This past weekend, I had two separate conversations with people who were concerned about climate change and looking for land that they could move to. While New Zealand was off the cards, I did get a general sense from these folks that they wanted to find somewhere, anywhere, where they could isolate and take care of the ones they loved. 

It’s an understandable urge. And we live in an individualist culture that will feed the urge in any way it can. 

Meanwhile, however, my social media feeds were full of friends in the southern United States who were directly demonstrating the opposite approach. Here’s climate essayist and podcaster Mary Heglar reflecting on her experience as a recent transplant to New Orleans:

And lo and behold, as Hurricane Ida continued its path, this idea of resilience and strength through connection came into even sharper focus. There were businesses offering up their premises for folks to grill food, or just to find community. 

There was the citizen-led Cajun Navy conducting search and rescue operations:

There was this chap dropping off much needed supplies:

There were neighbors risking their lives to protect the homes of others:

And there was a general sense that what keeps us safe in a storm is not high walls and hoarded supplies, but rather social connection, shared responsibility, and an understanding that we are all—like it or not—in this mess together. These aren’t just isolated, heartwarming stories that tend to do well on social media algorithms. They are manifestations of a verifiable fact: Social connections and networks are critical in both disaster preparedness and post-disaster resilience and recovery.

That's something that we've learned during the pandemic. While "survivalism" is often considered synonymous with "going it alone", what we learned from the past year and a half is that it's caring, community, and mutual reliance that really comes into its own when the compostable organic matter hits the fan. 

Rebecca Solnit has written about this fact in her 2010 book "A Paradise Built in Hell," arguing that altruism, resourcefulness, generosity, and even joy are natural human responses when tragedy and disaster strike. That's probably why communities like Louisiana and Mississippi—which have been dealing with these challenges forever—have such an in-built culture of connection and caring that is deeply tied to a unique sense of place. 

Of course, self-sufficiency and human connections aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, learning how to grow your own food, generating your own energy, or otherwise meeting your direct and immediate needs will also put you in good stead to help your neighbors and build mutual reliance. The trick—as with so many things in the climate crisis—is to learn to think of ourselves as one part of a connected and more complex whole.  

Given the stage of the game we are at with the climate crisis, we know that more disasters and more tragedy are coming. So we had best get ready to boost altruism and connection any which way we can. 

Something tells me that each of us retreating to our own private compounds isn't quite going to cut it. If you'd like to get a head start on building this type of response, then please consider donating to one of the many excellent mutual aid organizations that are out there. A few are listed below: 

The Gulf South for a Green New Deal Community-Controlled Fund

Another Gulf is Possible’s Collaborative Mutual Aid Fund

Southern Solidarity 

View Article Sources
  1. Hawkins, R. L., and K. Maurer. "Bonding, Bridging and Linking: How Social Capital Operated in New Orleans Following Hurricane Katrina." British Journal of Social Work, vol. 40, no. 6, 2009, pp. 1777-1793., doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcp087

  2. Chamlee-Wright, Emily, and Virgil Henry Storr. "“There’s No Place Like New Orleans”: Sense of Place and Community Recovery in the Ninth Ward After Hurricane Katrina." Journal of Urban Affairs, vol. 31, no. 5, 2009, pp. 615-634., doi:10.1111/j.1467-9906.2009.00479.x