When a Category 4 hurricane hits Hawaii, who will live and who will die?

The recent estimate is that 20,000 people would be injured and 500 would be killed.

The answer to the live-or-die question certainly includes the firming up of what we generally call infrastructure — the building of resilience by protecting the power grid, creating more shelters, mitigating flooding, moving electrical equipment to upper floors.

Marcel Honore discusses all of this in his excellent recent Civil Beat series, “Are We Ready?” 

But the answer also involves something squishier but just as crucial, maybe even more so. These soft things are hard to pin down and get much less attention, and we’ll get to the details in a minute.

Generally it all comes down to this: Survival depends on the vitality of your neighborhood, more precisely, on its social infrastructure.

Do Honolulu’s neighborhood, like this one in Palolo Valley — have the type of strong social infrastructure essential to recovering from a natural disaster?

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

These subtle neighborhood characteristics are absolutely essential because no matter how much we harden Hawaii’s infrastructure, it will be seriously compromised.

On top of that, the state is far short of the number of shelters it needs, and it won’t, probably can’t, catch up.

That’s why emergency management authorities here advise us to plan on living on our own for at least two weeks after the storm strikes.

Living on our own — a simple phrase concealing many layers as well as twists and turns.

The Squishy Stuff Makes A Difference

And that is where those crucial soft things come in.

Bitter experience has taught us that the key to survival may involve this very sort of resilience where you may be living alone, but not be isolated and unaccounted for.

Let me give you an initial feel for what social infrastructure is by telling you a brief story about the horrible three-day, July 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed over 750 people.

That number is much higher than the number of fatalities from Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coast almost exactly six years ago, and 50 percent more than that Hawaii future hurricane death estimate.

Most of the people who succumbed were elderly folks who died lonely and alone in their overheated houses.

Nobody knew.

The sociologist Eric Klinenberg, at the time a graduate student who had lived through the heat wave, made the first comprehensive analysis of the differences between those who perished and those who did not.

Tight-Knit Neighborhoods Do Best

The key difference was social infrastructure.

People who did not survive were much more likely to come from neighborhoods that had weak social infrastructures. The strength of social infrastructure was a more important determinant than either race or income.

For instance, poor black neighborhoods with strong social infrastructure did OK.  Those neighborhoods with the same demographics but having weak social infrastructure did not.

Klinenberg has now written “Palaces for the People,” a book that shows social infrastructure is a compelling factor in disasters all over the world.

OK, so what about the social infrastructure? First of all, it is composed of physical spaces just as what we normally consider infrastructure is.

But don’t think electrical grids. Think libraries.

It has always amazed and saddened me how little we know about Hawaii’s neighborhood vitality and resilience.

These places are “physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops.”

These spaces include but are not limited to schools, libraries, playgrounds, religious institutions, dog parks, athletic fields, active retail corridors. You get the picture.

When these spaces — say a dog park where people meet informally but regularly, a school where parents run into one another every day, a busy playground or a library filled with all walks of people and activities — are robust, they lead to contact and mutual support.

Productive awareness.

You get to know people, collaborate with them, and offer mutual support. They become part of your consciousness: “I wonder where Mister Li is? I usually run into him on Tuesdays when he comes here to buy groceries.”

During the Chicago heat wave in neighborhoods with strong social infrastructure, people were more likely to check in on their neighbors because they knew one another and because their absence from the streets registered.

Somebody knew.

This is everyday stuff. Don’t think anything as flowery as community building, social networking or cultural diversity. Think making play dates or helping some old woman you regularly run into at the neighborhood library find what she’s looking for.

When social infrastructure is degraded, Klinenberg says, “it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves.”

And in a huge hurricane, many people, maybe most, no matter how well prepared, may not be able to fend for themselves.

So in that way Honolulu post-storm will very much resemble Chicago 1995.

Does Hawaii have strong social infrastructures? If so, where? And how can we tell?

You know what? I can’t give you a confident answer to any of those questions.

The Aloha Spirit Isn’t Enough

Two reasons. One involves Klinenberg’s work. The other, more important, is about how little we know about Hawaii’s social infrastructure.

Klinenberg has shown how important social infrastructure is in all kinds of places, but the book’s examples tend to be urban, more like my granddaughter’s Brooklyn neighborhood than, say, Kailua or Kahalui.

The second has to do with how little we know in a rich, systematic sense, about the vibrancy of Hawaii’s neighborhoods.

Certainly emergency planners talk about the importance of social resiliency here, and we all hear the stories of heroism, cooperation, and despair that accompanied the recent eruption of the volcano and the flooding on Maui and Kauai.

And of course there’s that much overused term “ohana,” which is often used as a virtually automatic answer to how people in Hawaii respond to a crisis.

But talking about social resilience in a general sense or tossing the word “ohana” around is not the same as getting the idea of the importance of social infrastructure into people’s consciousness or making the deep dive necessary to see where on the islands social infrastructure is strong and where it is weak, and then doing something about it.

It has always amazed and saddened me how little we know — I mean really know, not some anecdotes or cliches about friendliness, neighborliness and the aloha spirit — about Hawaii’s neighborhood vitality and resilience.

Sample questions: What are Kapolei’s neighborhoods like? Weak or strong social infrastructure?

We need to find out more. It’s a life and death matter.

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