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Social Networks' Role in Rebuilding Communities

August 2011

Tom Heintjes: Welcome to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Community and Economic Development podcast. In the wake of the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, strong community ties played a critical role in the rebuilding process. Atlanta Fed staffers Ann Carpenter and Nancy Montoya explored the important role of social networks in the book Resilience and Opportunity: Lessons from the U.S. Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita. Carpenter and Montoya, both from the Bank's community and economic development department, coauthored a chapter titled "Plugging into the Power of Community: How Social Networks Energize Recovery." I'm here to discuss their work on this topic. Ann and Nancy, thanks for joining us today.

Ann Carpenter: Thank you, Tom.

Nancy Montoya: Glad to be here, Tom.

Heintjes: Your analysis focused on people's relationships with their physical environment and the social safety web that they built around their interactions with physical space. In the Broadmoor neighborhood in Bay St. Louis, what similarities did you find that existed before the storm, and how did relationships or networks either change or stay the same after the storm?

Carpenter: Well, Tom, I think that both communities did have several elements in common. I think that they both had quite a lot of historic properties and historic neighborhoods. They had a good mix of local-serving commercial and housing options. They had great public spaces, and those are the kinds of features that actually add to a sense of place in a community and provide opportunities for the social networks that we found. And I think that you'll see in both of the two communities that we chose that prior to the storm, those things were quite strong and actually they remained strong after the storm, which is part of the reason why we selected them in our case studies.

Montoya: And I just would like to say that I think in the way that they have changed, there were actually less residents poststorm because very few people had an opportunity to return, either because their property was damaged or, in the case of Bay St. Louis, it was very difficult to commute back and forth given their physical dislocation. And so the people that remained, actually, those relationships became even stronger and, actually, formed the foundation for the fight for their communities—if you would say that. So I'd say if anything had changed, it's actually that the networks have strengthened.

And as you would see through some of the chapters as the chapter unfolds, those relationships actually expanded and became more flexible and were even able to accommodate successfully outsiders, like universities, that were helping these communities rebuild or volunteers who embrace the community, actually chose to move back to that community to live.

Heintjes: That's a great point. In the course of your research for your chapter, you must have gone into this work with some preconceived notions of what you would find. Were there any surprises in what you did find?

Carpenter: For me, actually, I went into it thinking we were studying social networks and that this would really be something that would not include a component that related to the built environment or that had a physical component. And so going in as an urban planner and someone who's interested in those ideas, I was really kind of shocked and surprised and excited that we heard over and over again from residents that there are spaces that actually facilitated their social networks and that place matters very much to residents. So that was interesting to me, as someone who's researching that type of phenomenon.

Montoya: I'm sort of the flip side of that. I was really more interested, particularly, in the building and we are very attached, particularly in our older communities, to the building. So it's this chicken or egg question, what comes first, the building or the people? And I think, sort of feeding on what Ann said, it's an interrelated, sort of symbiotic relationship between people and their physical space.

Heintjes: Both of the communities you examined had been struck by some strong storms prior to Katrina. Just to name two examples, Hurricane Betsy affected New Orleans in 1965 and Hurricane Camille ravaged Bay St. Louis in 1969. Both of these communities rebounded and eventually rebuilt. What lessons did these communities learn from these experiences that translated into more resilient communities when Katrina hit in 2005?

Carpenter: It was interesting to me that coming in I knew that communities that have past experiences with any sort of disaster tend to be more prepared and more able to be resilient in the face of another disaster coming along that's similar. However, in this case, I did hear from residents multiple times that using those past experiences of Betsy and Camille as benchmarks actually did them a disservice in some ways. They were kind of caught unaware. For example, in Bay St. Louis there were households that had not flooded or taken on water in Camille because they were on higher ground than the storm surge. And actually, when Katrina came, the storm surge was much higher and it was not expected to be, so some of those people didn't evacuate and the results were quite disastrous. But Nancy, you might have a more positive spin on that, I hope.

Montoya: Actually yes, it was kind of shocking. Ann found this fantastic picture of Main Street of Bay St. Louis after the last hurricane, and it looked like something you would have seen out of Katrina. And so when I looked at the debris and I compared that picture and actually went down Main Street, I was just really amazed at, again, how willing people were to pick up the pieces and go rebuild, and rebuild in the same physical location. And, actually, that story has been repeated over and over throughout the world in terms of trying to get people to rebuild in a more sustainable and safe way.

But I think that those lessons learned, I mean, we heard a couple of times, "Well, we've been through this before so we'll do it again and it's going to take about 10 years for us to recover, and that's how long it took us to get back to, sort of, a place of normalcy." And, you know, I think we're pretty much on that trajectory—that 10-year recovery period.

One of the things I thought was very interesting in some of the conversations that I had had postdisaster was some of the experts had come in early and said if there was a particular trajectory that was happening in terms of growth or sustainability or population loss that was happening before this disaster, you can expect that that pattern would be exacerbated by the disaster. And, in both Bay St. Louis and New Orleans, particularly in New Orleans, we had been on a downward decline, we were losing population at the rate of about 4 percent every decade, and I'm glad that we actually took this opportunity to, sort of, turn that trajectory on its head and thumb our noses at the naysayers because we actually recovered a lot stronger than I would have anticipated. There were a lot of neighborhoods that recovered that you wouldn't expect. So it does for me put a different spin on what you can expect postdisaster. I think it just throws the whole door wide open and you really have to have a clean table and can't really predict what's going to happen. That really depends on how the residents choose to set their mind about rebuilding. So that was a real pleasant surprise for me.

Heintjes: That's a great observation. Well, let me ask you, how have people in both communities embraced new technologies or building methods to recover in a way that makes them more prepared for future disasters?

Montoya: Well, in New Orleans it's really remarkable because we had just been on the verge of looking at more sustainable development in terms of more resistant types of building materials and energy efficiency and even the concept of living with water, and we had a lot of help from organizations who saw the opportunity to come to New Orleans and really contribute in a more positive way about the way that we rebuilt because you're shell-shocked after a disaster and your first reaction is, I want everything to go back to exactly the way that it was before, and, in fact, that may not be the best way to rebuild. So we were catching our breath and some of our supporters were gently nudging us in a more sustainable direction. I think people are embracing that method of building faster than we ever would have anticipated. I also think that it gave our civic leaders an opportunity to maybe fast forward where they had been in terms of issues like zoning and planning and building codes so that we will wind up being a more resilient place to live, at least in New Orleans.

And, I think, in Bay St. Louis, in terms of the development patterns, you can see that the residents were voting with their feet and their money and choosing to go back to those building patterns that they knew were originally old-school, new-urbanism ways of rebuilding with the walkable streets and a respect for the historic character of their neighborhoods. Some of the areas that were a little more to the east of the built downtown in Bay St. Louis were suffering from lack of repopulation, and part of that had to do with building codes and insurance and other things that were making it financially infeasible for them to reinvest in those communities.

Heintjes: Well, you mentioned civic leaders, Nancy, and that's a good segue to my next question. How have civic leaders and experts, as well as resources from public, private, and philanthropic organizations, engaged with these communities to help them become more resilient?

Montoya: Immediately following a disaster, most of your civic leaders are just going to be...their basic concern is safety and shelter and making sure that people are situated. And so that was their major concern and then we, obviously, immediately postdisaster, had a lot of help from volunteer organizations and faith-based organizations to help with those basic needs. While those civic leaders were focusing on getting the communities stabilized, a lot of national entities were doing the thinking about—okay, how do we move from a stabilization phase into a recovery phase? And we had so many great thinkers at least come into New Orleans and help us rethink about the way that we might want to rebuild. What I will say, one lesson that was learned about that particular issue is that immediately after a disaster people are so shell-shocked, and just really wanting to piece their lives together, that I think it's very difficult for them to grasp the issue of having to change or nurture ideas that may have not been welcomed before.

So one piece of advice I would have is give people a chance to sort of catch their breath, stabilize themselves, come to the understanding that things are never going to be what they were before, and then gently introduce the ideas of rebuilding in a way that's more innovative or that capitalizes on more strengths and opportunities because there is a real silver lining any time a disaster comes into play.

So, I say that also to say that the philanthropic organizations were absolutely critical and made some long-term investments that are going to stay with us for at least the next 10 or 20 years, and those investments were basically in people and organizations. So if you want to talk about how to build a more resilient community, that investment in those formal social groups was something that I'm not sure would have happened without the philanthropic community being there at the table saying, yes, your voice is important and we're going to support it, and we're going to be patient enough for you to be able to gather the citizens and the residents and form yourselves in such a way that your voice can be heard.

Heintjes: That does sound crucial. Your chapter in the book touches on urban design and resilience. Ann, I'd like to ask you, what types of physical spaces or features did you find were most significant for communities?

Carpenter: As we kind of expected, certain types of locations or organizations came out as being very important for surviving and recovering from the disaster, and those were things like schools, places of worship, community centers. In Bay St. Louis it even included a senior center, which functioned as a shelter and helping to, kind of, provide the information and the resources that citizens required shortly after the disaster. But more surprisingly, I think, we saw that some things such as historic districts or sites and commercial centers—like the historic downtown of Bay St. Louis—were referred to again and again as kind of symbols for the community of their overall resilience, but also, of course, as gathering places and as a place where they could actually buy and purchase supplies and things like that, signifying the return to business as usual. These kinds of things, the return to businesses or the restoration of a prominent historic building, they gave hope to residents.

And I think, maybe less surprising was the critical importance of infrastructure. So, for example, in Bay St. Louis, when the bridge went out after the hurricane and the rebuilding of it [occurred] almost a year later and the return of utilities, those were extremely significant for moving forward. They took some time, and then once those kinds of things fell in place, similar to what Nancy was talking about, about the initial phase of surviving, and then once those things are restored, then moving on to returning to the community that they knew, the sense of place that they were familiar with.

Heintjes: Well, based on those insights, what types of investments or interventions are likely to yield more resilient communities?

Carpenter: Oh, I think in addition to ensuring that your schools and your community centers are up and running, and, as Nancy said, ensuring that you have invested in the formal social networks that help to facilitate resilience, I would say that in addition to those things, from our two communities it's important to have continuity of different services and of different social gatherings—the continuity of those things happening before and after the storm, as is facilitating communal efforts—so maybe communal rebuilding efforts, or something like that.

In terms of specific investments, that may be just basic support for community centers and after-school programs, which could strengthen the networks that are formed through those formal networks ahead of an event. But then, after the event in a storm or something, something like a tool bank might aid homeowners and also bring them together physically in a way that we saw in Bay St. Louis with food and water distribution points.

Heintjes: You've referred to a unique sense of place. Is this unique sense of place associated with the Gulf Coast related to these phenomena?

Carpenter: I actually was just reading a journal article that was looking at this specific thing and how certain communities in coastal Louisiana have a unique identification and attachment to their surroundings because of the specific environmental, economic, and social conditions that are there. And it was talking somewhat about how there is an awareness that the future of this ecosystem and of the Gulf, in general, is rather uncertain, and we see that more and more with things like the oil spill and Katrina. But there's also a strong sense that the residents of this area are custodians of this area, and they have a fierce determination to rebuild that actually bolsters resilience.

Montoya: It's kind of interesting. It reminds me, we used to have a very large downtown department store here in New Orleans that was very symbolic. It was the place where you had the candy counter and you could go to buy your Sunday suit, and you could buy your Sunday hat there, and you could go to the third floor and buy these fantastic fabrics (this is before the storm), but when this department store closed there was a general sense of mourning in the community over the fact that this department store had closed. And a local economic development expert pointed out to us that this institution had actually lasted a lot longer in this community than it would have some place else because of our attachment to that institution (even though it was for-profit, it was a department store), but we were just so culturally attached to it that it stuck around a lot longer.

And, as I look across the Gulf Coast and I look at places like the coastal wetlands that have a strong fishing and shrimping and Cajun communities—so they have a real relationship with their land. And I look at places like Bay St. Louis that have that small-town beach feel and that real attachment to people, place, and that sense of water. I think about that same thing, I think it's actually the tenacity and the respect, and the real recognition that people in these communities have about their relationship between the physical environment and where they live that keeps those communities in place. Often I think about the fact that, but for people's respect for this way of life, that they might move and stay in some place like Houston, and so these communities may not exist at all. So that gives me great hope for what they can remake themselves into looking into the future, particularly if there's more of a demand for these walkable, livable, sort of old-school kind of communities that people are now starting to gravitate more to as we move forward.

Heintjes: Right, well said. I wanted to talk about another current event and that is the jobless recovery that we are currently experiencing, which could be seen as a disaster recovery challenge all on its own. Are there any similarities between what communities face in a physical disaster and an economically affected area?

Montoya: I think there are. As we watched the meltdown of the financial markets in 2008, there were those of us along the Gulf Coast that kind of had a big sigh of relief because we had missed a lot of that frenzied financial activity that eventually led to this. And, I think one of the lessons is, quite frankly, that government can't solve all of your problems, and government can't be there all the time, and so, going back to the traditional networks—the families, the friends, the churches, the physical places where people gather for support and for food, and just for basic survival—I think the rest of the country is relearning those lessons. I don't think we've ever really forgotten them, but you have a tendency to get real comfortable. And so, the things that we had to deal with postdisaster about how you live with a very limited water supply, or how you get a meal, or how you even, frankly, cobble together a living in the face of disaster are all things that, I think, the rest of the United States is experiencing. And, it seems really difficult right now, but one thing I have learned that I mentioned before is that out of these crises, real innovation and creativity—new ways of doing things, new ways of living, which in some ways are much richer—come out of this type of crisis, and so, I'm hoping that this is our "capture moment" as citizens of the United States. That we're looking for, "what is a more sustainable way for us to live in both our financial and our physical environment?"

Heintjes: My last question to you both concerns some other significant disasters that our country has experienced since Hurricane Katrina, such as this year's tornadoes and last year's oil spill. With an eye toward the rebuilding in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, what have you learned from your research that could be used to help these communities better recover from future disasters?

Montoya: Well, the first and most obvious things that we can think about is, if there is a building that's been flattened and you are having to replace that building or rebuild, what kind of incentives, or what types of housing codes or policies can you put into place to ensure that the physical environment itself is built in a much more sustainable way, and that's certainly something that local government has control over. The second thing I would say is, again, give yourself—once you've stabilized your population—give yourself breathing space and the opportunity mentally to be able to grasp the opportunity to build in a way that is more sustainable. Not even just physically sustainable, but build your community in such a way that it knits everybody together rather than separates people out or excludes certain populations. So, the issue of the town square where there's local government and services and retail and gathering space and a place to celebrate, I think all of that is really important as they look at what they can do to build more sustainably.

There's another issue of equity. There were a lot of lessons that were learned post-Katrina about very well meant fiscal policies that wound up having disparate impact on, particularly, low- to moderate-income populations. And so, understanding those lessons, listening to the experts who've been through this and seeing if you could avoid those same kinds of mistakes would all be things that I would hope that we could learn from the Gulf Coast.

Carpenter: I think that, as Nancy said, this is an opportunity in a way for these communities to rebuild in a sustainable way. And I think the takeaway of this book that we have a chapter in—Resilience and Opportunity—is that in a situation like this, this is a time when many reformations can take place across many different sectors of the community, and, obviously, you can't take your time too much or else you're going to lose your population or really disenfranchise people, but, you know, it is a unique opportunity to slow down, look at what are your needs, and assess how to rebuild most sustainably.

Heintjes: Ann and Nancy, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us about the role of social networks in rebuilding communities.

Montoya: It's been a pleasure.

Carpenter: Good to talk to you, Tom.

Heintjes: Again, today we've been speaking with Atlanta Fed staffers Ann Carpenter and Nancy Montoya of the Bank's community and economic development department. This concludes our Community and Economic Development podcast. To read more about the book project they participated in, please see the third-quarter 2011 issue of Financial Update.

For more information, please see Financial Update on the Atlanta Fed website, Thanks for listening, and please return for more podcasts. If you have comments, please send us e-mail at