U.S. Army Spc. Timothy Houston, a UH-60L Blackhawk crew chief assigned to the 282nd Aviation Battalion, Fort Bragg, N.C., scans the flood ravaged streets of New Orleans, La., on September 11, 2005. Government agencies and charities should include communications technology in their disaster assistance plans, just as they include food, water, and medicine, suggests study coauthor Marya Doerfel. (Credit: Staff Sgt. Jacob Bailey/U.S. Army)

RUTGERS (US)—In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a city that had lost so much managed to preserve a critical element to its eventual recovery: social capital.

That’s the finding of a report by researchers at Rutgers, who made trips to New Orleans between December 2005 and April 2007, conducting interviews with organizational leaders.

Their study, published in the journal Human Communication Research, describes how organizations—from large corporations and nonprofit groups to small businesses—used communication to hold themselves together, re-establish their organizational networks, and rebuild.

Coauthor Marya Doerfel, an associate professor of communication, describes social capital as the “resources embedded and available in social relationships.” In the study, she and her coauthors conclude that social capital could be spent after a catastrophe whether it had been carefully tended to beforehand.

They found that organizations in post-Katrina New Orleans relied on old friends of long standing to help them recover, but also resurrected long-neglected contacts and even established completely new contacts to get them through the crisis. This finding ran counter to many previously held assumptions about social capital.

The researchers also conclude that communications hardware was crucial to organizations trying to recover from catastrophe.

“Loaning cell phones or web page space may be as critical to supporting displaced organizations as financial support like insurance plans are when the revenue stream stops,” Doerfel writes. Government agencies and charities, Doerfel suggests, should include communications technology in their disaster assistance plans, just as they include food, water, and medicine.

The researchers identified four phases their subjects went through in the aftermath of Katrina: personal emergency, professional emergency, transitional, and rebuilding.

In the personal emergency phase, the leaders scrambled to protect themselves and their families. In the professional emergency phase, they communicated with their employees,  coordinated remote work, reassured them about getting paid, or told them to find new jobs.

In the transitional phase, organizations used the internet, telephone, and public service announcements to advise customers, suppliers, insurers, and others of their status and needs. Businesses, trade and professional groups, charities, and others outside the devastated area communicated with New Orleans businesses and organizations, offering help of various kinds.

Doerfel notes that these contacts were often with people new to her subjects and might be described as “charitable” contacts, not expenditures of previously built-up social capital.

It was in the transitional phase, however, that organizations began to spend some of that social capital. One business leader, having trouble getting the necessary pass to get into the city, called the office of Senator Mary Landrieu for help. Another business owner contacted his insurance company to get copies of the pass needed to get back into the city.

As time went on, Doerfel reports, organizations began to depend more on reconnected local and personal networks—social capital—and less on charity. Organization leaders began to contact peers, competitors, friends, and friends of friends whom they thought might help keep their organizations functioning.

Eventually, this led to the rebuilding phase: An energy consultant went back to work on a project with the city, a retail business worked with peers from out of town to get its store re-opened, and a community group that had applied for grants before the storm re-connected with the granting agencies.

Doerfel and her colleagues conclude that social capital was a durable and sustainable resource. When other kinds of resources were unavailable after Katrina, social capital proved to be robust, even when personal relationships had not been nurtured for years before the disaster.

“Just knowing” that others in their networks were “back in New Orleans,” more or less intact and potentially ready to help, gave them confidence.

Other coauthors include researchers from Rutgers and Penn State.

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