By Stefanie Haeffele-Balch and Virgil Henry Storr
When a major winter storm pummeled the East Coast, it left 12 to 36 inches of snow across the region as well as coastal flooding and, tragically a number of weather-related fatalities in its wake. School districts, governments and businesses were closed as people across the region dug out after the storm. While we may expect government to lead the recovery effort, our neighbors play a key role in helping our communities return to normalcy.
Consider the following examples:
On the Saturday evening of the blizzard, a couple went for a walk around their neighborhood just as the snow stopped falling. As they tromped through the snow, sometimes as high as their knees and hips, they encountered another couple walking their dog and a few people assessing the state of their buried cars. Then, farther down the barely plowed street, they noticed a car with its four-way emergency flashers on and the engine revving as tires dug into the snow. The couple felt obliged to help and went back to their apartment to grab a shovel. Within a few minutes, the car and its passengers were on their way.
Similarly, on Sunday, a gentleman in his late 40s walked around his neighborhood looking for people who might need help. He shoveled snow from the sidewalk of one neighbor who went inside to take a break after clearing a path to her car, and then he moved on to the driveway of another neighbor who wasn’t able to go outside because of poor health.
These stories aren’t unique. During the blizzard and in the subsequent days, countless people had a similar story of helping or being helped by their neighbors: such as the woman who finishes clearing her driveway and then shovels her neighbor’s driveway so that he doesn’t risk hurting his knee again, the boy who checks in on his elderly neighbor to make sure her heat is working and that she has enough food and medicine to last through the storm and the neighbors who dig out the fire hydrants on their street.
In these situations, we often expect government to protect property, clear roads, get public transit running and assist in medical emergencies. And we should celebrate the police, fireman and emergency responders who come to work and save lives. However, we shouldn’t forget that some storms are so large that they’re likely to overwhelm even the best-prepared and most-efficient governments.
In circumstances such as the recent blizzard, community members must rely on one another during and after the storm. If communities are to quickly return to normalcy, our neighbors, who take on the roles of commercial and social entrepreneurs, must be given room to act, too.
This is true after every major storm or natural disaster, including Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. In New Orleans, commercial entrepreneurs reopened grocery stores, gas stations and furniture stores to provide the goods needed for rebuilding. And in New York, churches and synagogues provided food, clothing and medical services to their neighbors. Although the story of recovery from Winter Storm Jonas is still being written, it shouldn’t surprise us that entrepreneurs play a major role.
News reports have already focused on the grocery store and gas station owners who kept their stores open as long as possible so people could stock up on supplies as well as the social entrepreneurs who kept homeless shelters open and assisted the most vulnerable members of their communities. These stories, like the ones mentioned earlier, are about neighbors helping neighbors obtain the resources and tackle the activities needed to dig out after the storm and return to their daily lives.
We should embrace the key role that our neighbors play during and after disasters. Returning to normalcy means working together to clear the snow, supporting the business owners who remain open to sell supplies and embracing the importance of local entrepreneurs.
Stefanie Haeffele-Balch and Virgil Henry Storr are research fellows with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and co-authors with Laura E. Grube of “Community Revival in the Wake of Disaster.”