To prepare for natural disasters, the standard advice always mentions to importance of stockpiling essentials, such as batteries, food and water. While these items can certainly aid with survival after a tragedy, an area-wide ability to recover depends on the connection between people, not the availability of disaster kits and infrastructure.

In March 2011, Japan faced a unique disaster that devastated many people’s lives. It began with a substantial earthquake that was followed by a tsunami. This caused a nuclear breakdown and required hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate. The nuclear incident alone depressed many survivors, froze the national political climate and forced local residents to pursue non-nuclear alternatives.

In some areas along the coast, the waves reached heights of up to 60 feet, but no one died. In other regions, up to 10 percent of residents lost their lives. Surprisingly enough, Japan had spent large sums of money to build sea walls but spent little on cohesion and social ties.

Professor Daniel P. Aldrich and his colleagues investigated how hard-hit areas reacted to these disasters. He found out that social networks played a significant role in the recovery of some communities. The team examined more than 130 villages, towns and cities in the region of Tohoku to see how municipalities dealt with the tragedy. In particular, they wanted to know why the mortality rates varied so greatly.

They evaluated different factors including: demographics, exposure to the ocean, tsunami height, seawall height, social capital and voting patterns. In a nutshell, the results showed that communities with more advanced levels of interaction and trust experienced lower mortality levels.

The social connections that mattered ended up being between the residents. Based on conversations with survivors, it turned out that municipalities with more interaction, ties and mutual standards worked successfully to provide aid to family members and neighbors. Many residents only had 40 minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami. In that time, many people carried the elderly out of the low-lying areas. Residents also knocked on doors and helped escort others to safety.

Two years after the catastrophe, some areas were still struggling to restore service and manage their daily affairs. In that time, other cities had already rebounded completely. The ones that did the best had sent powerful representatives into the government agencies before the tragedy. These politicians then helped to sort out the bureaucracy.