Can powerful storms improve neighborhood relations?

Amid the tremendous snowfall on the East Coast, one might wonder: does a storm of that size bring people together?

A 1998 study looks at the short- and long-term effects of a major ice storm in the northeastern New York community of Potsdam. The storm completely totaled the area’s electrical grid and left many homes without power for two weeks in the dead of winter. The sociologist Stephen Sweet compared a survey on community perceptions administered three years prior to the storm to one administered just one month after it. After the storm, Potsdam residents saw their town as a more caring, friendlier, and more interesting place. But perceptions of Potsdam quickly returned to normal.

“When structure changes out of its normal form, behaviors shift and new types of social relations quickly emerge,” Sweet writes. (Think: snowmen in Hell’s Kitchen; plows kindly swerving to avoid them.) “However, once structure returns to its customary form, perception of social relations shift back in accordance with the familiar,” the sociologist concludes. (Read: as the snow melts, New Yorkers will return to being buttheads.)

Other research suggests that the degree of post-storm kindness is entirely dependent on the preexisting cohesion of the urban community. In 2013, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg took a close look at a deadly 1995 Chicago heatwave, which killed 739 people. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods that lost the most people were black and poor. But they were also markedly less socially cohered. The Englewood area, where the most people died, was one that had lost 50 percent of its population between 1960 and 1990…

In other words: Disaster preparedness helps, but whether a city can ride out a crisis also depends on interpersonal relationships. “Social cohesion is a critical component of building resilience,” Judith Rodin, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic last year. “You can look at communities that are literally adjacent and see a difference. Resilience is about building these capacities before the storm, before the shocks, before the stresses.”

Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave is an interesting look at this topic. As suggested above, factors including prior social relationships, race and class, and the connection of particular neighborhoods to the larger community as a whole matter.One interpretation of the research presented above: nature might do its own thing but social interactions and community life are pretty durable.

But, I wonder if the kind of and scale of disaster also matters at all. One thing that is unique about storms is that everyone is affected and has little control over nature. The outcomes might be very different – think different neighborhoods of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina – but everyone had to respond in some way. If I had to guess, I would think neighbors of similar backgrounds – class, race, etc. – might be more neighborly in the wake of a storm. Does a larger storm lead to more community togetherness (even if the blip is temporary) as opposed to one that doesn’t do as much damage or where the effects are more localized?

And if there is any increase in community togetherness for a little while, what does this get translated into? It is very unlikely to overcome deep seated social divides. Does it lead to different policies? A few impassioned local news stories or editorials praising the efforts of neighbors to help each other? In Heat Wave, Klinenberg discusses the responses of the city of Chicago which includes city-coordinated cooling centers for the public to use. But, it is another matter to ask whether such centers improve community overall.

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