Upon onset of a new hurricane season and potential catastrophes, scientists are learning the vital role of social networks in helping people cope with disasters.

Researchers and government officials have known for two years that Hurricane Katrina caused population shifts across the Gulf Coast region, but an interdisciplinary team of researchers has quantified just how sharp the decline has been in affected areas.

Their work also has provided new insights into the importance of social networks and family connections in helping people prevail through disastrous circumstances.

David A. Swanson, director of UM’s Center for Population Studies, teamed with faculty colleagues Mark Van Boening and Richard Forgette to assess Hurricane Katrina’s demographic and social impacts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“Hurricane Katrina represents the greatest natural disaster in American history and stretched 90,000 square miles, roughly the size of Great Britain,” said Swanson.

The professors compared the number of houses in the Mississippi counties of Hancock and Harrison from Census 2000 and after Katrina’s landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. They worked on a block-by-block basis to determine the total number of houses destroyed or damaged, also breaking the figures down by type of housing unit.

Their research found that just before Katrina 18,105 people occupied approximately 7,100 housing units in the area. By January 2006, that number had fallen to approximately 10,950 people residing in 3,938 permanent and temporary housing units. Thus, the hurricane resulted in a population decline of 7,155 people in these 346 blocks.

Also, Swanson, Van Boening and Forgette collected data to determine whether social and kinship networks played roles in determining respondents’ success; that is, the capacity for respondents to sustain their physical and emotional well-being after the hurricane.

The study found that individuals with a large network of friends and family experienced less post-traumatic stress following the storm, Forgette said.

“Most people consider individuals with physical limitations, limited finances or the elderly as those most vulnerable to unexpected events like a natural disaster,” Forgette said.

“Our research shows that people with low social networks or relationships reported disturbance in financial, economic, physical and professional well-being.”

Swanson agreed, adding, “Our data indicates that social isolation increases perceptions of disaster disturbance.

“Our findings show that a person with a large personal network group, including friends, church, plus immediate and extended family, was more able to deal with the impact of Hurricane Katrina on an economic, health and social well-being level than a person with a smaller personal group network,” Swanson said.

Source: University of Mississippi