Block Captain Network
The term ‘block captain’ is used in a variety of contexts, but here it is used to describe the communication and organisation of people during a crisis. After Hurricane Katrina caused severe flooding and devastation in the US in August 2005, there was chaos and a lack of communication and organisation. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, one civic organisation wanted to connect with citizens in its neighbourhood. In order to make the best possible contact, as many residents as possible were contacted through the network of personal acquaintances and volunteers were able to set themselves up as ‘block captains’. The block captains were able to get an overview of the people on their block and act as a link between them and outside help in communicating, planning, and organising the reconstruction work.
A similar effort was made by James Gore after the 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County. During and after the fires, he observed massive town hall meetings in Santa Rosa. The community’s need for information and answers was strong, and he felt that the government’s massaging was not fast enough. So in November he decided to set up a network of block captains: He asked community members to divide the affected region into smaller areas and to elect a “block captain” for each section. With a bit of basic organisational help, the block captain concept was off to a good start.
At the weekly meetings, the block captains received input. They were able to ask questions of the people they represented and pass on information to them. Experts in relevant fields, such as officials with information on the rebuilding process, updates on road closures, the police and mental health specialists, were organised as presenters at the weekly meetings.
This success story has given rise to community groups dedicated to risk awareness, disaster preparedness and resilience building. The citizen groups put pressure on their local governments to make changes to better respond to future crises. A group of block captains also acted as multipliers by going to Paradise to share their experiences and lessons from Santa Rosa with the community.
In the case of Katrina, the destruction was so great in terms of area, number of people affected and severity that the government had no overview. Initially, many people were cut off and stranded, others were evacuated, injured or dead. In the immediate aftermath, the authorities had no idea who was safe, who needed help and who had died. They had no registers of people and their whereabouts, nor did they have the resources to find out. However, neighbours in a block knew each other and everyone had some information about who was safe or missing, so this network could be used to provide an overview of this part of the affected population that the authorities did not have. Similarly, in the recovery phase of a disaster, the same network can help to keep track of everyone, something that the authorities usually do not have the capacity to do because they are preoccupied with crisis management and rebuilding. The Santa Rosa example also shows that the Block Captains method can better meet the information needs of the affected population and is a more orderly way of responding to a lack of resources on the part of the authorities. This type of communication differs from that previously used in Santa Rosa and other crisis areas, allowing for more direct and personal communication with the possibility of top-down and bottom-up exchange.