As Hurricane Sandy crept toward New York City in the days before October 29, 2012, I remember that the wait seemed interminable. We knew days ahead of time that this storm was going to be monstrous. We knew where not to be, and governmental agencies enacted emergency plans and amassed their resources.
Nevertheless, many people were unprepared for its brutal impact and suffered at high cost. Especially on Staten Island, the least populated borough, the losses were huge, and the recovery exceedingly difficult and frustrating. Why?
Alexa Dietrich, associate professor of Anthropology at Wagner College, has been looking into that question for the past four years. She uses a unique lens for her inquiry: that of culture.
In research published in July in the journal Natural Hazards Observer, Dietrich diagnoses a culture clash between Staten Islanders and the government agencies assigned to respond to their needs. This clash, she says, played a large role in what happened during and after the storm.
Dietrich herself was an evacuee the day of the storm, and that experience began her immersion into what has become a multi-faceted longitudinal study. It has also become a teaching opportunity, as she and her students have been collecting interviews with local residents ever since the fall of 2012 as part of an undergraduate class on culture and research methods. Dietrich has also conducted focus groups with non-profit agencies, emergency responders, and disaster case managers.
As a person who came from a different region of the country to live in Staten Island 10 years ago, I found a few points of Dietrich’s complex analysis especially enlightening:
- Environment, she writes, is an important ingredient of human cultures. Some cultures experience frequent environmental disasters and incorporate these disturbances into their normal existence. For Staten Island, however, such a tradition did not exist. “Some coastal residents were familiar with the regular ritual of small-scale basement flooding, for example,” she writes. “However, their familiarity gave the illusion that they could handle what was to come” during Superstorm Sandy.
- Along those lines, Dietrich also explains that Staten Island has a culture of distrusting government and operating in its own informal circles to get stuff done — stuff like home renovations, for instance. “Staten Island has long been a community where cash is king and home repairs and improvements … [are] done by friends and social acquaintances.” While this “moral economy” builds community, it also set up a situation where the storm could cause more destruction because the building was not done to withstand such forces.
- Staten Island’s culture of self-reliance and informal networks clashed with the response offered by government agencies that had resources and expertise in disaster management. Local non-profits, on the other hand, understand the culture, but they didn’t have the resources or expertise to deal with such an emergency. “As such, although the complementary knowledge bases may exist, they are often not effectively utilized, sometimes due to poor communication between agencies,” Dietrich writes.
It was interesting to consider “the importance of the cultural landscape to a community’s ability to respond to a disaster,” in Dietrich’s words. “Local culture represents not only potential vulnerability but potential strength; when brought together with agency expertise, culture can improve the quality of preparedness and recovery.”
Many Wagner alumni experienced Superstorm Sandy or other natural disasters. What have you observed about the role of culture in dealing with such events?
— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine | October 26, 2016
This research was funded by a grant from the John ’53 and Gloria Deane Fund to Support Teaching and Learning in the Environmental Sciences at Wagner College.