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Social capital and social learning after Hurricane Sandy


The post-disaster context is one characterized by profound uncertainty. Those affected by the storm, or earthquake, or flood, must determine what strategies to pursue in response to the disaster and must find ways to coordinate their recovery efforts with others in their community. Ex ante it is not clear what strategies will be most effective. If communities are to recover after a disaster, community members must engender and engage in a process of social learning involving experimentation, communication, and imitation. This paper explores the post-disaster social learning process. Specifically, we focus on the importance of social capital in facilitating social learning after a disaster, including facilitating community members’ ability to communicate their desire to return, to assess damage, to overcome barriers to rebuilding through collective yet voluntary action, and to learn from and imitate others’ successes. Focusing on how this process took place after Hurricane Sandy in Rockaway, New York, especially within the Orthodox Jewish community, we examine how community groups (a) adapted existing organization structures and (b) created new procedures and imitated the successful actions of others in order to spur recovery.

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  1. Information on damage from report “Sandy and Its Impact” through, available at

  2. In section 5 we discuss (briefly) how government assistance fits into the discussion of social learning. Otherwise, we do not focus on the role of various government entities in post-disaster response and recovery (e.g. the National Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the National Flood Insurance Program).

  3. Putnam popularized the term social capital in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Putnam, however, has sometimes used social capital to refer to the level of trust in society, or levels of civic engagement. In his 1995 article with Helliwell on economic growth in Italy, for example, the authors adopt an index of social capital that includes newspaper readership, sports and cultural associations, and voter turnout. For our purposes, we stay closer to the definitions offered by Bourdieu (and Coleman 1988). An interested reader may want to consult Portes (2000) on the two meanings of social capital (article has the same title).

  4. The market order is perhaps the quintessential social learning process; however, in the market, prices facilitate exchange. As Chamlee-Wright and Myers (2008: 152) explain, “Social learning is the phenomenon in which society achieves a level of coordination and cooperation that far exceeds the coordinating capacity of any individual or group of individuals within society.”

  5. Another reason that post-disaster research might not have explicitly addressed the connection between social capital and social learning is that research has explored this relationship in mundane times. Burt (2001), for instance, has argued that social entrepreneurs can improve upon existing social networks by finding and exploiting informational opportunities within and across social networks. As Burt (ibid.) explains, in environments where transactions are complex and information is imperfect, individuals may decide to imitate others in their social network. They may imitate those who have a history of success (i.e. reputation) or those who have received positive feedback. Through these innovations and imitations, social learning can take place throughout the community, signaling which procedures and actions are likely to be successful and which are not.

  6. While Johannisson and Olaison (ibid.) conclude that bonding social capital is the only type that can be immediately “put to work,” our analysis shows that it can be used in conjunction with bridging and linking social capital to spur community recovery.

  7. An interested reader might go to Chamlee-Wright’s (2011) article, where she articulates the connection between the interpretive turn in economics (of which Chamlee-Wright’s teacher, Lavoie, was a key voice) and the use of qualitative methods in economics.

  8. From 2010 Census data for zip codes 11,691, 11,697, and 11,694. Available online at

  9. For these statistics and more, see the profile of Queens Community District 14,

  10. For more information, see and

  11. For more information on the Rockaway Youth Task Force, see

  12. For more information see this video on CAF:

  13. For more information, see

  14. The RCSP works closely with the 101st Precinct, the nearby police station. The RCSP can follow-up on reported suspicions before calling the police, and the RCSP can also monitor a situation while waiting for police to arrive.

  15. Admittedly, the concern over looted following disaster is perhaps overstated. For example, see Barsky et al. (2006).

  16. See notice from The Jewish Star, available online at,3670


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Correspondence to Laura E. Grube.

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Storr, V.H., Haeffele-Balch, S. & Grube, L.E. Social capital and social learning after Hurricane Sandy. Rev Austrian Econ 30, 447–467 (2017).

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  • Disaster recovery
  • Social learning
  • Social capital
  • Hurricane Sandy
  • Rockaway, NY

JEL classification

  • B53
  • D71
  • D83
  • Q54