Fostering Recovery

By Timothy J. Haney

On June 19, 2013, more than eight inches of rain fell in the Canadian province of Alberta in just 36 hours. This rainfall, coupled with significant snowmelt, led to seven rivers in Alberta overtopping their banks, triggering catastrophic flooding in Southern Alberta. The Canadian Armed Forces helped evacuate 175,000 people in multiple communities, with more than 75,000 residents evacuated in the City of Calgary alone. The flood became the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

Social Capital and Disasters

Beginning in the 1990s, the idea of social capital was introduced by scholars to explain how our social networks influence important life outcomes, such as employment, health, and education. In the context of disasters, researchers use social capital to analyze how people access necessary resources during and after a catastrophic event. In Building Resilience, Aldrich (2012) asserts that social capital is the most important resource that an individual, family, or community can mobilize in a disaster, because it helps people access required resources that may not be available through more formal channels.

The 2013 Southern Alberta Flood provided an opportunity to examine how disasters motivate residents to generate new forms of social capital that help them both recover from the current disaster and prepare for future events. One year after the flood, in May 2014, I worked with a team of research assistants to collect survey data from 407 Calgary residents who lived in the city’s 26 flooded and/or evacuated neighborhoods. The survey included questions related to participants’ evacuation experience, their use of social networks during the disaster, and their plans for returning or rebuilding. To augment the survey data, we also conducted 90-minute interviews with 40 residents. The purpose of the study was to examine the factors that prompted residents to expand their social contacts, and the impacts of these new networks on attachment to place and civic engagement.

Emergent Network Ties

Our analysis of survey data revealed that direct personal experience with the flood was the most important predictor of whether an individual would develop new social connections. Having their home flooded, being asked to evacuate, and the duration of the evacuation were all related to the generation of new social capital. In fact, participants whose homes had flooded were five times more likely to make new social contacts.

Those who experienced the most hardship during the floods were also more likely to stay in touch with new contacts in the year following the disaster. Notably, variables such as the number of neighbors they knew by name prior to the flood were not significant. This finding supports the idea that during disasters, new social capital is formed in response to a situation of need.

The personal interview data also highlighted the importance of situational need in creating new social capital. One interviewee who was forced to outrun the flood waters to escape her home told us: “I met more of my neighbors than I have met in the thirty years I have lived there. I am closer to them, and we were able to help our neighbors.” Another explained how his new connections endured after the flood. “Maybe you see them at the little coffee shop in the neighborhood now, and you know they were there to help you.”

Post-Disaster Place Attachment

Researchers have long known that experiencing a disaster can change the sense of attachment residents have to the place they live. Disasters can alter someone’s attachment to place by making livelihoods more difficult, significantly altering the natural environment and landmarks, and disrupting social networks that are part of daily life. Based on this, we asked respondents questions related to how they felt about their neighborhoods a year after the disaster and whether they considered their post-flood neighborhood an “excellent” place to live.

Although having one’s residence flood did not affect people’s attachment to their neighborhoods, it did negatively impact their perception of the neighborhood’s quality of life. It may be that people’s evacuation experiences made them think about their neighborhood’s vulnerability to future flooding, prompting them to question whether they wanted to continue living there. Based on these findings, we conclude that having an adverse flood experience and bearing flood-related financial costs caused residents to perceive their neighborhood as being less desirable.

Post-Disaster Civic Engagement

Research has shown that community issues, such as crime or poverty, often trigger civic engagement by residents. Following a disaster, residents may channel their new social connections into civic engagement and grassroots efforts to solve problems. We measured post-disaster civic engagement by asking participants (1) whether they spoke to their neighbors more after the flood than before, and (2) whether they had attended any community or neighborhood meetings since the flood.

Overall, personal experience with the flood was related to increased civic engagement; people whose homes had flooded were three times more likely to be active in their communities after the flood. The strongest predictor of post-disaster civic activity is pre-disaster community involvement. Respondents who described their pre-disaster activity as high were 37 times more likely to maintain this level of activity after the flood. One participant said his concerns about structural mitigation measures motivated him to become more active in neighborhood meetings. “I am on a committee, and we are lobbying. I am going to keep talking to people and keep actively participating in a proper mitigation strategy,” he said.

The number of residents who made new connections and had higher levels of community involvement with their neighborhoods during and after the floods is noteworthy. It is important to also pay attention to who had these experiences. Our findings clearly show that the severity of impacts and material need are the key factors that trigger the formation of new social ties. In addition, those whose homes had flooded were more likely to have high levels of civic engagement. However, the experience of having their home flooded or having to evacuate appeared to erode people’s attachment to place, even if their community involvement increased.

Understanding how disaster-affected residents expand their social networks after a disaster is critical to building more resilient communities in the disaster aftermath. Our results show that it is not simply pre-existing social capital that helps residents cope with a disaster, but instead that the disaster may actually bring together people who may not have otherwise interacted. These new bonds can strengthen communities and lead to community engagement, volunteering, and other altruistic efforts as well as foster a more robust recovery.

About the Special Collection

This special collection of Research Counts grew out of a longstanding collaboration between the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (IJMED) and the Natural Hazards Center. Our commitment in this special collection is to bring key findings and ideas from recent IJMED articles to a broader audience of emergency managers, disaster risk reduction professionals, and policy makers in the hazards and disaster field.

This Research Counts article was written by science and travel writer, Laurie J. Schmidt. It is based upon the following publication:

Haney, Timothy J. 2018. “Paradise Found? The Emergence of Social Capital, Place Attachment, and Civic Engagement after Disaster.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 36(2): 97-119.