MICHELE NORRIS, host:
It seems as though there have been a lot of disasters recently - the earthquake in Japan, tornadoes in places like Missouri and Alabama, and those wildfires, to name just a few. With each of those disasters, we hear a lot about the emergency personnel, equipment and ambulances that are rushed to the scene.
But new research shows there's something more important than rescue crews and government aid.
NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports that what really matters are neighbors.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, one victim was political scientist Daniel Aldrich. He had just moved to New Orleans. Late one night, there was a knock on his door.
Professor DANIEL ALDRICH (College of Liberal Arts, Purdue University): It was a neighbor who knew that we had no idea of the realities of the Gulf Coast life, and knocked on our door very late at night - on Saturday and said: Look, you've got small kids. You should really leave.
VEDANTAM: Officials hadn't ordered everyone out, but Aldrich trusted his neighbor. He bundled his family into a car and drove to Houston.
Prof. ALDRICH: Without that information, we never would have left. I think we would have been trapped.
VEDANTAM: In fact, by the time people were told to leave, thousands got stuck.
Aldrich thought about how his neighbor had helped him, and asked himself: Is it possible neighbors play a decisive role during all disasters? As a researcher, he decided to find out.
In Indian villages hit by the 2004 tsunami, Aldrich found that villagers who fared best weren't those with the most money, or the most power. They were the people who knew lots of other people.
Prof. ALDRICH: Those individuals who had been more involved in local festivals, funerals and weddings, those were individuals who were tied into the community. They knew who to go to. They knew how to find someone who could help them get aid.
VEDANTAM: In Japan, Aldrich found that fire trucks and ambulances didn't save the most lives after earthquakes. Neighbors did.
Prof. ALDRICH: In Kobe in 1995, if you knew where your neighbors slept, because the earthquake was very early in the morning, you knew where to dig in the rubble to find them early enough in the process for them to survive.
VEDANTAM: When the earthquake struck Japan this March, Aldrich was certain that good neighbors would play a decisive role. He was right. In Miyagi Prefecture, 100 miles from Fukushima, the earthquake knocked out power, telephone lines, cell phones.
Michinori Watanabe, a 43-year-old truck driver, had a father who needed a machine to breathe. When the power went out, the machine went down. Watanabe ran out onto the street, begging strangers, do you have a generator? Do you? Do you?
Mr. MICHINORI WATANABE: (Through translator) I was running around and talking to people. And after I talked to a few of them, a person I knew from before said he had one. I asked him to please go get it. So he did, and I went back to my house and connected the equipment to the generator.
VEDANTAM: Watanabe's father survived, but it was a close call. Not only did no professionals help Watanabe those first few minutes, there was no sign of them the first day. Watanabe found water and blankets for homeless neighbors. Days later, still without help, he started flagging down cars with out-of-town license plates.
Mr. WATANABE: (Through translator) I think it is not the proper way to do it, but I kind of pretended I was giving directions. And I found out who they were and what they had and then I asked them, if you have anything, please leave it with us.
VEDANTAM: Watanabe says he's discovered the value of his neighbors.
Mr. WATANABE: (Through translator) People in the community really joined forces with me. My neighbors, they aren't just neighbors anymore, now they're like my family.
VEDANTAM: When governments step in to help after a disaster, they are usually focused on infrastructure, not neighborhood ties. If you want to get the lights on and clear debris, you want people out of your way.
But keeping communities away can keep them from getting back on their feet. That's exactly what another researcher found in New Orleans. She's Beloit College economist Emily Chamlee-Wright.
Ms. EMILY CHAMLEE-WRIGHT (Economist, Beloit College): One of the communities that in the post-Katrina context was the most successful was the Mary Queen of Vietnam community in New Orleans East. It's important to recognize that one of the reasons why they were so successful is that they ignored government warnings not to come back and start rebuilding too soon.
VEDANTAM: Even well-meaning NGOs can be blind to neighborhood dynamics. In Southeast Asia, Daniel Aldrich, who now works at Purdue University, found that NGOs actually hurt the fishing villages they were trying to help. They saw the damage caused by the 2004 tsunami, and started giving new boats to all the fishermen.
Prof. ALDRICH: Fishing is a very social activity. It's organized really not in a hierarchy but in a network. So you have someone who drives the boat, the person who steers, you have two people fishing in the water, some person who carries the net and a person who goes takes the fish to market.
Once every person is given their own boat, you've gone from five people working together to each individual working by themselves.
VEDANTAM: Fishermen who used to work together now became competitors. Trust broke down. Fights broke out.
Prof. ALDRICH: Some of the local activists I talked to called this the second tsunami.
VEDANTAM: Here's the bottom line: Communities are not the sum of their roads, schools and malls. They are the sum of their relationships. Work with those relationships, communities come back from a disaster. Damage those relationships and communities die.
What this means is if we want to save ourselves in a disaster, we ought to reach out and make more friends with our neighbors now.
Prof. ALDRICH: Get more involved in neighborhood events. If there's a planning club, a homeowners association - if there are sports clubs nearby, PTAs - those groups have us in contact with people we wouldn't normally meet and help us build up these stocks of trust and reciprocity.
Really, at the end of the day, the people who will save you and the people who will help you, they're usually neighbors.
VEDANTAM: Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.