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Bridges Over Troubled Waters: What are the Optimal Networks for Katrina’s Victims?
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Jeanne S. Hurlbert is professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. John J. Beggs is associate professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Valerie A. Haines is associate professor of sociology at the University of Calgary. All three are associated with the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and the Center for the Study of the Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes. They have studied the way in which networks helped individuals prepare for and recover from Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Georges, as well as the role networks play in resource allocation in an urban poor area. They are beginning studies of networks and resources in the context of Hurricane Katrina, in both the general population and a sample of small business owners.

We hear the refrain repeatedly: Katrina was different. The extent of the flooding, the level of economic disruption, and the length of time that will elapse before residents can return to their homes all distinguish this storm from its predecessors. Social scientists now confront the task of assessing what Katrina’s effects will mean not only for the storm’s victims, but also for the future of the area in which they lived. One key aspect of that task is to understand how individuals’ social networks will affect the dynamics of recovery and rebuilding. Our previous research on social networks and hurricanes showed that individuals’ networks matter in both the preparation and recovery phases of the storm, over and above the personal characteristics of victims and characteristics of the communities in which they live. They matter for the amount of informal social support individuals provide and receive, for their perceptions of the adequacy of social support, and for their physical and mental health.

Drawing on that research, our research on the urban poor, and on baseline data on social networks and anticipated evacuation behavior that we collected in New Orleans prior to Katrina, we suggest what kinds of social networks may be most helpful for New Orleans residents to recover from the storm. We also consider how network dynamics may affect the character of the city that reemerges. We conclude by considering some of the implications of the storm and its effects for social policy and social science.

Optimal Networks and the Recovery Process

Hurricanes bring significant short-term and long-term effects on physical and mental health. Our research on Hurricane Andrew1 showed that, in the short-term recovery phase of that storm, individuals who received more social support experienced better physical health and lower levels of depression than individuals who received less support. Among those who drew that support from their social networks, stronger ties—particularly kin ties—and ties to similar others (homophilous ties) served as key informal support conduits. Those findings resonate with research on informal social support and health in the general population, which shows that dense network sectors (those in which a high proportion of members have ties to one another) containing strong and homophilous ties play a central role in the provision of informal social support, and that better access to informal social support contributes to better health outcomes.2

Our research also showed that the structure of individuals’ social networks prior to the storm affected the degree to which they activated network ties for help in the preparation and recovery phases.3 Individuals embedded in higher-density networks, networks with more gender diversity (i.e., a mix of men and women), and networks that contained higher proportions of men, kin, and younger individuals activated core network ties for informal support to a greater degree than individuals embedded in core networks lacking these characteristics did.

Taken together, these findings might lead social scientists to expect that victims of Katrina who participate in networks containing a higher proportion of strong and homophilous ties, and networks in which most members know one another, would receive more social support. But, given the scope of Katrina’s impact, these kinds of ties and network sectors may prove insufficient to meet victims’ needs. Some economists estimate that Katrina precipitated job loss for as many as 400,000 people in the New Orleans metropolitan area. To the extent that these individuals draw help from their social networks, they will need network structures that can provide not only social support but also job-finding assistance. Further, many employed and unemployed victims will require help finding new housing or schools for their children. Extant research shows that, in the general population, weaker ties and wider-ranging (less dense) network sectors provide the most effective conduits of these instrumental resources.4 For that reason, we predict that “optimal network” structures, which combine stronger ties/dense sectors with weaker ties/wider-ranging sectors, will prove key in recovering from Katrina.

But Is It Really That Simple?

Individuals who participated in these “optimal” network structures prior to the storm should weather its effects better than individuals who lack them; those networks are, on average, most likely to offer both social support and instrumental assistance (e.g., help finding jobs, houses, or schools). Once again, though, the nature of Katrina’s effects complicates the picture. Rather than forcing individuals to evacuate for a few days, as in a “typical” hurricane, Katrina necessitated much longer-term relocation for most New Orleans residents. Many find that their family members have dispersed to various cities; some remain unable to find their loved ones at all. Ties to friends, neighbors, coworkers, and business contacts have suffered similar disruption. Some victims of the storm will find ways to preserve and use their pre-Katrina ties. But Katrina’s victims may find the task of maintaining their network ties to be taxing, complex, and perhaps overwhelming in the face of so many other losses and disruptions.

Adding to the complex nature of Katrina’s effects is the fact that they may vary by social class and race; it may prove much more difficult for the urban poor, who are disproportionately African American, to maintain pre-Katrina ties than it does for their more affluent counterparts. The most obvious reason that the urban poor may encounter difficulty maintaining their pre-Katrina networks is that they are less likely than their more affluent counterparts to enjoy access to the cell phones, Internet, and fax machines that aid communication. But social isolation—the isolation of the urban poor from mainstream individuals and institutions, as identified by sociologist William Julius Wilson5—is also likely to contribute to these difficulties. Our research on the urban poor demonstrated that, compared to residents of middle-class areas, residents of poor urban areas participated in smaller networks of restricted range (less access to weak ties, lower diversity).6 Notably, their networks also offered fewer communication and transportation resources (e.g., a lower proportion of their network members possessed access to telephones and cars). The urban poor, then, are less likely than their more affluent counterparts to have participated in optimal networks prior to the storm, and they may also be less likely to maintain their pre-Katrina network structures.

Failing to maintain network ties may prove costly. Previous studies suggest that ties of long duration and ties to individuals who served as trustworthy sources of business or other instrumental assistance will probably provide key resources for most people, now and in the future. Losing those ties means losing the resources that they could offer. And, if victims cannot maintain contact with pre-Katrina ties for an extended period during this critical phase, then the loss of these network members could prove permanent.

Even individuals who do maintain most of their pre-Katrina networks will probably need to augment their network resources by building new ties in the communities to which they evacuated. This may be particularly true if individuals they knew before Katrina are living elsewhere and/or are themselves overburdened by the effects of the storm, and thus unable to provide assistance. For displaced persons who remain in host areas for an extended period, building new ties in those areas will aid them in adapting to their new surroundings and finding needed resources.

How they build these ties and with whom they construct them will prove consequential. Research by sociologists Miller McPherson and Lynn Smith-Lovin7 shows that certain types of voluntary organizations tend to foster the development of the strong ties that are more likely to provide social support, while other types promote acquisition of the weaker ties that increase access to instrumental resources. The kinds of organizations into which Katrina’s victims venture in their new venues, then, will affect the kind of ties that they can add to their extant network structures.

The degree to which displaced persons participate in organizations in their host cities, their experiences in those organizations, and their success in forging new ties may affect both the health consequences of the storm and the degree to which their networks transform in the wake of the storm. Given the demonstrated importance of social integration for health, we expect that individuals who do participate in voluntary organizations in their host cities and succeed in building ties in those contexts will experience fewer deleterious health effects of Katrina than those who do not. Here again, the urban poor may suffer disadvantage. As Wilson predicted, we found that residents of poor urban areas were less likely than their middle-class counterparts to share voluntary organization memberships with network members. We therefore expect that they will be less likely than more affluent individuals to build new ties in voluntary organizations.

The long-term effects of these experiences on network structures are more difficult to predict. The longer these victims remain in their host cities, the more likely it is that their new ties will become a permanent part of their network structures, even if these individuals ultimately return to New Orleans. Alternatively, many displaced residents may view all of their interactions from the standpoint that their stay in the host city is temporary and may, therefore, limit the addition of new ties to their network.

Consequences for Individuals and for the City of New Orleans

Research demonstrates clearly the negative effects of hurricanes on physical and mental health. Because of the magnitude of Katrina’s disruption, both the extent and the duration of these health effects may be far greater than in other natural disasters. Certainly, that is what officials in Louisiana’s State Office of Mental Health expect. The extent to which Katrina’s victims can use network ties that existed before Katrina and build new network ties will both affect the negative health consequences of the storm. Drawing social support from their networks and using network ties to rebuild their lives by locating jobs, housing, and schools may mitigate these health effects. If, as research suggests, urban poor individuals prove to be disadvantaged in doing so, then the health consequences for them may be particularly severe.

How individuals draw resources from their networks and with what results, and whether and how victims forge new ties will almost certainly affect their decisions about whether to return to New Orleans. We anticipate that a complex array of factors will affect that decision-making process. Those whose houses were lost entirely, for example, may be less likely to return to New Orleans than those who can repair their residences. Many displaced persons will find employment in their host cities. To the extent that the rewards of these new jobs equal or exceed those of jobs that they held before the storm, New Orleans may become less appealing; those whose networks can aid them in finding jobs, especially high-quality jobs, will be more likely to find themselves in that position. Once again, our research suggests that, to the extent that the urban poor were not embedded in optimal networks prior to the storm and/or encounter difficulty maintaining and building network ties, they may experience disadvantage.

Individuals who owned businesses before the storm may be more likely to return—but only if they can survive financially in the short term, if they determine that the market for their business will revive after the storm, and if they calculate that the potential rewards in New Orleans equal or exceed the costs of returning. For those whose businesses are lost completely, prospects may well seem more attractive in Baton Rouge, Houston, or Atlanta. The extent to which these business owners had pre-existing ties, particularly business ties, in other cities may exert a strong effect on the choice of whether to try to rebuild their business in New Orleans or begin anew elsewhere.

Parents who manage to settle their children in new schools and neighborhoods may become increasingly reluctant to uproot those children and return to their home city. And, to the extent that displaced persons—and their children—do form new network ties to local residents or other displaced persons in host cities, those ties may become the anchors that transform short-term into long-term residents. We must consider these possibilities in the context of the out-migration of residents from New Orleans that predated Katrina: Between 1995 and 2000, the city experienced a net outflow of nearly 41,000 residents, with almost half leaving the state.8 New Orleans also lost jobs before Katrina as several oil-and-gas firms relocated their headquarters to Houston.

These decisions about whether and when to return to New Orleans will shape the demographics of the “new New Orleans” that emerges. For social scientists to anticipate how, they will need to predict not just how many residents will return, but who will return. Some contend that the city will gentrify, as many poor residents choose not to return, while higher-income individuals chase perceived economic opportunities. If poorer New Orleanians succeed in building network ties, finding jobs, and locating housing outside their native city or state, and consider themselves “better off” socially and economically, they may, indeed, return at lower rates than their more affluent counterparts, contributing to gentrification. That depends, though, upon their ability to marshal the social and economic resources to build a new life, which, research suggests, may be difficult.

But many dismiss the possibility of a “transformed” New Orleans, arguing that the strong network structures, the local orientation of many residents, and the distinct culture of pre-Katrina New Orleans will serve as a magnet that draws a majority of its residents, from all socioeconomic strata and races, home. Historically, the character of New Orleans and the orientation of its residents have distinguished it from many other major cities. Multi-generational families, strong kin structures, and low rates of residential mobility characterized the city before Katrina. Those characteristics may, indeed, increase New Orleans’ ability to maintain the cultural and economic diversity that produced such a distinct culture, cuisine, and style of life.

The characteristics of those who return to the city will affect not only its demographics, but also the nature of the economic activity and the character of social institutions that survive. The social and economic composition of the new populace and its spatial distribution will shape the nature of the churches, professional associations, service groups, and social groups that reemerge. Because these voluntary organizations serve as key contexts for forming and maintaining network ties, these processes will affect the amount and kinds of social capital of individuals, neighborhoods, and the city as a whole. This, in turn, will affect who remains in the city long-term, as well as who migrates in.

What are the Implications for Social Science and Social Policy?

These and other questions about the recovery of Katrina’s victims will engage social scientists, journalists, and pundits for many years. Studying these processes of recovery and rebuilding will yield important information for social scientists not just about disaster recovery, but also about social problems, urban planning, inequality, and the nature of social change.

Social scientists should, and undoubtedly will, play a role not only in understanding these processes, but also in shaping them. In the days after Katrina, fundamental and often troubling questions about the nature of social life in New Orleans, and in America more generally, began to emerge. As they watched the misery of the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center, it seemed to many sociologists that Americans suddenly discovered the “have-nots” of their society, witnessing the effects not just of economic deprivation, but also of social isolation from mainstream society and its institutions. Katrina exposed long-standing cleavages in the social structure, demonstrated the extent of the disparity between the rich and poor, and provided a dramatic demonstration of just how far the implications of poverty reach. As some have put it, for many Americans, it was as though long-ignored relatives suddenly stood by the dinner table, asking why no place had been set for them.

While social scientists study and debate the important questions of who will best be able to recover, who will return to New Orleans, and what kind of Crescent City we will reconstruct, perhaps one key role for them will be to remind both the public and the planners how many people were left behind. They were left behind in part because their economic and social isolation limited their ability to escape Katrina, and to escape poverty. Social scientists may have an opportunity to help planners avoid replicating the situation that produced that outcome. Many are already discussing, for example, the possibility of combating the geographic and social isolation of poor New Orleans residents by creating neighborhoods with greater socioeconomic diversity. If Wilson’s arguments are correct, then ending the spatial concentration of poverty may offer the urban poor opportunities to build optimal networks and gain stronger connections to mainstream institutions. These and other efforts will be necessary if we are to refurbish not just the physical, but also the social infrastructure of New Orleans, while avoiding mistakes of the past.


1 Haines, Valerie A., John J. Beggs, and Jeanne S. Hurlbert. 2002. “Exploring the Structural Contexts of the Support Process: Social Networks, Social Statuses, Social Support, and Psychological Distress.” Advances in Medical Sociology 8:269-292. Haines, Valerie A., Jeanne S. Hurlbert, and John J. Beggs. 1999. "The Disaster Framing of the Stress Process: A Test of an Expanded Model." International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 17.

2 Haines, Valerie A. and Jeanne S. Hurlbert. 1992. “Network Range and Health.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 33:254-266.

3 Hurlbert, Jeanne S., Valerie A. Haines, and John J. Beggs. 2000. “Core Networks and Tie Activation: What Kinds of Routine Networks Allocate Resources in Nonroutine Situations?” American Sociological Review 65:598-618.

4 Flap, Hendrik D. and Nan Dirk de Graaf. 1986. “Social Capital and Occupational Status.” The Netherlands Journal of Sociology 22:45-61. ——. 1995. “Afterword 1994: Reconsiderations and a New Agenda.” In Getting a Job, Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Marsden, Peter V. and Jeanne S. Hurlbert. 1988. “Social Resources and Mobility Outcomes: A Replication and Extension.” Social Forces 66:1038-59.

5 Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: the Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago.

6 Hurlbert, Jeanne S., Valerie A. Haines, and John J. Beggs. 2005. “Distinctiveness and Disadvantage Among the Urban Poor: Is Restricted Network Range Really the Problem?” Unpublished Manuscript.

7 McPherson, J. Miller and Lynn Smith-Lovin. 1982. “Women and Weak Ties: Differences by Sex in the Size of Voluntary Organizations.” American Journal of Sociology 87:883-904. ——. “Sex Segregation in Voluntary Associations.” American Sociological Review 51:61-79.

8 U.S. Bureau of the Census.