In late July 2005, Daniel Aldrich and his wife, Yael, moved to New Orleans with their two young sons so that Aldrich, a newly minted PhD in political science from Harvard, could take a job as an assistant professor at Tulane University. The couple rented a home, bought a car and furniture, and put an inflatable pool for the kids out back.
“We had a real nice setup in Lakeview,” says Aldrich, 41. “You could see Lake Pontchartrain from our house, and my wife and the kids had biked to the levee, less than a quarter-mile away.”
On Monday, Aug. 29, Aldrich was scheduled to start teaching, and the boys were to start preschool. But early that morning, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and history, after the catastrophic breaching of the levees that left the city under water.
Observant Jews, the Aldriches had turned off the radio the Friday before — they had no TV — to prepare Shabbat dinner. Evacuation was still voluntary. At 11 p.m. on Saturday, a neighbor they barely knew knocked on the door. “You guys should really get out,” she said. “It’s going to be bad.”
They stuffed clothes and toys into a suitcase and left for Houston, not quite four hours away. It took them 14 hours on a highway clogged with storm refugees. They stayed with relatives; within weeks, they were able to return to New Orleans.
But they soon realized that part of their lives was over. Tulane would not open for months. While they were gone, their rental home, its windows broken, had been condemned. It took only four days for FEMA to reject the family’s request for help because, the agency said, they had flood insurance. (They didn’t).
With no job and few possessions, Aldrich drove his family back to Boston, to the Brighton neighborhood where they’d lived while he was at Harvard. Friends there had offered them moving expenses, apartment rent, and tuition for the boys’ preschool. Harvard gave him a one-year postdoc position, and an office.
“We rebuilt our normalcy,” says Aldrich.
But the storm, which killed 1,800 and caused $108 billion in damage, also set Aldrich’s own work on a new course. Back in Boston, he found himself fascinated by disaster recovery and what it meant. He had finished his previous work on nuclear power in Japan and now focused on new questions: What creates resilience? Which factors determined whether a post-crisis community would bounce back?
He is now a leader in a new wave of scholars drawing surprising new insights into what helps cities and communities survive disaster, and was just named co-director of Northeastern University’s Masters in Security and Resilience Studies program.
“What I found was that the strength and cohesion of a community before the disaster was one of the best predictors for recovery after,” says Aldrich, a slender man who wears a yarmulke and talks rapid-fire about his research. It was social capital — not money poured into infrastructure — that most quickly led to recovery, no matter how poor the community.
In 2007-08, his family moved to Tokyo so that Aldrich, fluent in Japanese, could study the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 1923 Tokyo earthquake that destroyed half of the city. Aldrich also spent months in India after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed nearly 250,000.
He and his team interviewed internally displaced people living in crude camps, which bolstered his belief that the strongest key to resilience was social connection. “People told me that if they were connected to a local council, they were on the list to get aid. They got rice, pots and pans, clothes,” he says. “But if you were off the list, you got nothing. In 2008, widows and others were still living in shacks.”
Those three Asian disasters, plus Katrina, are the case studies Aldrich uses to advance his argument in his 2012 book, “Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery” (University of Chicago Press). The book details his favorite New Orleans comeback story, the Mary Queen of Vietnam neighborhood in the northeast corner of the city. Within a year of Katrina, 90 percent of the people were back in their homes, and 90 percent of businesses were open.
“An amazing recovery,” he says. The close-knit community shared a religion, a language, and a vision: that rebuilding was their job, no one else’s.
“Even as they were evacuating, they organized. They built a website and had a Vietnamese broadcast,” Aldrich says. “They raised their own money. They built an urban farm, their own medical facility, and schools. They weren’t waiting for FEMA or the city.”
His own Lakeview neighborhood — mostly white and upper middle class — came back, but more slowly, and not cohesively, he says. “They came back as individuals, not as a unit.” It was their political, not personal, connections that helped those individuals, he says.
In 2012, the Aldrich family, which now included four children, returned to Tokyo so he could research the 2011 earthquake that triggered a tsunami, killing more than 16,000 and causing meltdowns at a nuclear power plant. The World Bank has estimated it was the costliest natural disaster in world history.
The working title of Aldrich’s manuscript about that disaster is “Recovery From the Black Wave.” Only 40 minutes passed between the earthquake and tsunami. “The elderly and sick could not get out of bed, but in communities of trust, fewer lives were lost,” he says. “People who were healthy knew the people who were sick. They knocked on doors and said, ‘Let’s get out together.’ ”
The power of friends, family, and neighbors means that they, in effect, are the real first responders. “In New Orleans, it took the National Guard four or five days to get in,” he says. “It happens time and again. The government doesn’t ride in on a white horse. People in New Orleans were still in FEMA trailers nine years later.”
Northeastern hired Aldrich away from Purdue, where he taught political science. He practices what he preaches, living in his old Brighton neighborhood, where he and his family have reconnected with friends and the Jewish community.
“What Daniel brings to our efforts is the ability to better understand the crucial social dimensions of community resilience,” says Stephen Flynn, who two years ago founded Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies. “Daniel’s work is deciphering the recipe for that secret sauce so it can not only be understood, but replicated.”
That wisdom is starting to catch on worldwide. Today, Aldrich also works with NGOs in Japan and the Phillipines and nonprofits in the US as well as the government of New Zealand and the city of San Francisco to help design resilient communities both before and after disasters.
“You’re pouring all this money into relatively minor details, like three days of food and water when you should be investing in the social infrastructure of a community,” he says.
In San Francisco, the city gives grants to block captains to hold a Neighborfest, or block party. Other places are giving “community currency,” which can only be spent locally, to reward those who volunteer in their neighborhoods.
Boston has a brand-new Resilience Office of its own. Atyia Martin, who earned her doctorate at Northeastern, starts work Aug. 31 as the city’s chief resilience officer. She has worked with Aldrich at a conference on community response to disasters and agrees that the socially vulnerable have fewer prospects after a crisis.
Martin says she will first focus on low-income households in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and parts of the South End and East Boston. “We’re looking at social resilience, people in communities, and the connection between day-to-day life and what happens after disasters,” she says. “The more we can improve the day-to-day issues people are facing, it will help us provide a blueprint for healthy communities.”
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.