Case Study: Hurricane Katrina and Post-Disaster Social Learning


On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,600, destroyed 270,000 homes, and resulted in property damage between $125-156 billion. The shock and trauma of the event was met only by the shock and trauma of the poor disaster response. Entire neighborhoods and social systems were lost. While it was widely assumed that major commercial and tourist areas would be rebuilt, it wasn’t clear at all how the residential neighborhoods would rebound.

Framing the Question

After a disaster, how is social order restored? How does learning take place without a free market? How can self-interest benefit the collective good when government fails to organize a sustainable response? How do communities rebound after a disaster?

The Post-Disaster Challenge

The immediate uncertainty born of Katrina was ultimately social in nature. Evacuees were scattered across 724 cities in 46 states. Even with the help of relief agencies, people had trouble finding each other. Those who returned early had to remove wreckage from roadways before work on ones own home could begin. Given the fragile structures, toxic flood waters, and lack of public services, safety was a significant concern. These pioneers also faced the possibility that after all their efforts, others might not return, leaving their neighborhood relatively desolate. Given the uncertainty of what others might do and the high costs associated with an early return, a vicious logic unfolds – it makes more sense to wait for others to return first. While everyone waits, nothing happens and the community fails to rebound.

It is a problem of coordinating expectations. If residents all expect each other to come back, they will. If they don’t, they won’t. But achieving this coordination in the circumstances of New Orleans seems impossible. There are classes of problems that free markets simply do not deal with well. If ever there was an example, the rebuilding of New Orleans is it.

Response: Social Capital and Signaling

While government aid and philanthropic efforts helped in reconstruction, New Orleans owes much of its reconstruction to the efforts of its citizens. People who returned first relied on informal networks and mutual assistance to exchange labor, expertise, shelter, child care services, tools and equipment, etc. Not only did mutual assistance provide material support, it served as a credible signal that friends, neighbors, employers and employees were committed to the recovery process. Others who hear about the efforts to rebuild are encouraged to return, knowing that social reconstruction was underway.

Frank Williams, the owner of a hardware store, housed his manager for 8 months during the reconstruction. In return, his manager helped rebuild the store without pay until the business was up and running. The accumulation of these stories has a dramatic effect on the community. Neighborhood-based websites encouraged the exchange of services, signaling the future viability of the community. In turn, city officials and service providers see the progress and consider the neighborhood worthy of reinvestment. Power, gas and sewer services return. Once Frank’s hardware store was up and running, the presence of a business selling vital supplies and providing construction advice helped to further catalyze the rebuilding effort.

Commercial activity served as another signal that a community was rebounding. Businesses supported employees in order to attract and retain them under these conditions. One-third offered employees some form of temporary living assistance. Suppliers extended credit to their clients. Hospitals put private physicians on salary. Neighboring businesses offered communication links and even office space to direct competitors.

On September 17, 2005 the Wal-Mart in Waveland, Mississippi opened under a tent in the store parking lot. At first it only sold water, canned goods, and cleaning supplies. When coolers and freezers arrived a week later, they were able to sell ice and milk.

It was a Wal-Mart under a tent. We were all thrilled. Oh, we can go buy pop, or we can get, you know, our essentials. So we were really happy about that. That was forward motion. And then Sonic opened. We had the busiest Sonic in … the whole United States. It made more money in a shorter period of time than any Sonic did for a year in the United States. Amazing. It was like fine dining. Ooh, this is wonderful, you know, coz there was nothing else then. There were no stores. There was nothing else that was even halfway resembling normal. I guess when businesses open up and they start being fully operational, it reminds us what normalcy used to be like … Like Rite Aid opened and it was 100% Rite Aid. I didn’t go in to buy anything. I just went to walk around and be normal.

Businesses that reopened also served as gathering places for strangely similar conversations. “How high was the water at your place?” “Is your wife still in Houston?” “Have you got a trailer?” These conversations strengthened the social fabric and reminded people why they were going through the reconstruction effort in the first place.

The reconstruction of important community resources such as churches, clinics, and schools also served as an important signal that the community was being rebuilt. When the superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish Public School District pledged that any student who registered by November 1 would be given a seat, she expected 50 students to enroll. Instead, 703 said they would return and by the start of the semester in January, over 1,500 students had returned. This overwhelming show of support highlights the importance of reestablishing community resources.


Social structures are at least as important as physical structures in post-disaster recovery. The bonds that are formed post-recovery can strengthen a community à la Nietzche: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” In the intermediate stages of recovery, creating social gathering places may be more important than individual shelters as the former facilitate an exchange of information, reconnect the social fabric, and signal to others the neighborhood’s intent to rebound.

Chamlee-Wright, Emily. The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a Post-disaster Environment. London: Routledge, 2010. 1-56. Print.

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